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    Tuesday, November 28, 2023

    City determined to help ‘the least able to pay’

    With all that cities have to manage, it’s intriguing that they would keep the task of managing apartments for elderly, disabled, and low-income tenants in the family, so to speak. Wouldn’t it be easier to delegate that responsibility to some other entity, perhaps one with the incentive of making a profit?

    Not at the bottom of the income scale, it wouldn’t. Cities like New London, with its Housing Authority and non-profit allies, are holding the safety net for those least able to pay their rent or get along on their own. While the city is glad to have for-profit developers running the Mohican Hotel and the Carabetta-owned neighborhoods, the bottom line is that there really is no bottom line for housing people with no means. The ink just turns red.

    Housing is a problem of scale calculated by the number of units and the size of the rents, and yet it is also the most personal of situations: a place to close the door and lay down your head.

    As Boomers age, the fastest growing segment of the homeless population is the elderly. The New London Housing Authority – which predates Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs – runs three state-subsidized and one federally subsidized complex for elderly and disabled people. The state Department of Housing oversees the three and federal HUD administrators supervise the fourth. The projects were built in the 1960s and ‘70s and have had very little refurbishing.

    For decades the authority’s performance had its ups and downs. Partly to blame are a complex funding system, the limitations of a small, local board and a staff that often seemed unequipped to deal with the problems. An unfortunate legacy of those days is the loss of a key funding source the city would like to get back.

    Right now it would be music to the ears of New London Mayor Michael Passero, the Housing Authority and non-profit housing advocates if someone accused them of throwing money at a chronic problem. Because that would mean there was money to throw.

    The officials are like kids staring into the window of an ice cream shop, wishing for the flavor that’s all scooped out. What they can almost taste is a return of 114 vouchers the authority gave back to the state in 2013 that could now be subsidizing elderly tenants’ rent payments. That could mean 114 apartments rented for $900 or more to people who can ill afford even the $425–$495 they now pay monthly. With a voucher, a tenant pays part and government pays part, making for a rental fee that goes further toward the overhead of maintenance and repair.

    The state Department of Housing has not indicated that return of the vouchers to the New London Housing Authority’s control will come anytime soon. Yet the mayor, authority Director Kolisha Kedron and city Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein aren’t ready to say a private developer, even a non-profit like ECHO, should take over.

    Why is that?

    The answer may be in the nature of their quintessentially New London response to a broad problem. They want to do it their way. In a recent meeting with The Day Editorial Board the three were frank about the city’s role: to focus on the needs of those least able to pay and most difficult to help. Kedron, who previously managed the authority’s properties as an employee of a consulting firm, is concentrating on funds to rehab existing senior housing for its current tenants. The mayor says the authority’s finances have stabilized, and once the seniors’ plan is funded, he wants to move on to more help for families. He will be looking for “deep subsidization” of public housing.

    Milstein, whose office is always at the center of dealing with mental health and drug crises in the city, says New London excels at emergency and urgent response, such as the use of a vacant nursing home during the pandemic for homeless people infected with Covid. She says recent market-rate apartments are helping take the pressure off housing supply, and that she’d like to see funds made available to small landlords to redo multifamily houses. The city and small owners could focus on rehab of housing stock; developers would still be needed to build more.

    What emerges is a picture of a city willing to coordinate the efforts of many partners, especially for tenants who will never not need help. Without the fire department and its EMTs or the Housing Resource Center, for example, Milstein says “the situation here would be dire.”

    So far, it is not. New London is not on the brink of overwhelming homelessness problems like those in Seattle or Portland, Oregon. While it may not have the vouchers it wants, the city has recognized a valuable resource in the public’s willingness to volunteer on behalf of homeless and food-insecure residents.

    It could be that confidence in the crisis management of the Homeless Hospitality Center, the relatively new Housing Resource Center and the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center have helped create an environment, however imperfect, in which people support helping others.

    The vouchers would go a long way, too.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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