A paycheck away from homelessness in New London County
New London — The city lost 124 housing units for low-income families after the closure and demolition of the federally subsidized Thames River Apartments, but the need for affordable housing remains.
According to New London’s Affordable Housing Plan, 1,686 more households earn less than 30% of the area median income than there are available affordably priced units with monthly gross rents at or below $605.
And the need is not just in the City of New London.
New London County has only 10,861 housing units considered affordable for the 14,624 households of one or more people earning 30% or less of the county median household income of $71,368, according to a study done by Urban Institute in 2021 using census data from 2018.
That means almost 4,000 households would not be able to find affordable housing. The scarcity is greatest for those with larger households.
About 73% of federal- and state-subsidized housing units in the county are age-restricted, according to the state Department of Housing. Of the 29 federal- and state-subsidized public housing properties in the county, only eight allow families.
The Day sat down with families who resided at the Thames River Apartments prior to its closure in 2018 and now find themselves living in cramped spaces, unable to afford more.
Searching for stability
In 2017, Aleshia Valero, then known as Aleshia Meier and living in the A building, had heard people talk for two years about the apartments closing and residents receiving vouchers.
She was anxious to leave, as mold in her apartment’s ceiling was making her sick.
Valero said she had applied to Branford Manor, a federally subsidized complex in Groton, but could not get on the waiting list because she owed money on a cell phone bill. Around the same time, Valero’s father died and left her some insurance money.
Valero didn’t have the credit score needed to purchase a home, so she pooled the money together with savings and bought a trailer home in Groton. She continues to live off Poquonnock Road around the corner of the Citgo gas station, where there is a narrow, unnamed road that leads to Laurel Hill Mobile Home Park.
A short time after leaving the Thames River Apartments, Valero learned she was pregnant with twins.
Today, there is rarely a moment of silence in her two-bedroom, single-wide trailer home, living with four of her five children and their emotional support dog. The couch in the living room doubles as Valero’s bed.
Valero wishes she could move to a bigger space, but she has been either unemployed, or underemployed, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finding a stable job flexible enough to accommodate her motherly duties has been a challenge for Valero, the main provider for her children.
“The system is designed to keep you locked in,” Valero said. “The more you make, the more they take and it makes it harder to save.”
Valero said she felt like she didn’t quite fit in at “Crystal.” She did, however, have a good relationship with neighbors on her floor. They would take their kids to the park together, make dinner or babysit each others’ kids .
“It wasn’t that bad,” Valero said. “It was more of a crime the way they let us live.”
Valero said there was no security at the apartment complex. She always felt safe in her apartment, but she and her oldest child, Rowan, described seeing people set cars on fire and homeless people loitering in the laundry room.
Valero’s last job was working at LEARN’s Pathway Program in East Lyme. She was a van aide helping to keep calm kids with developmental disabilities.
“I loved that job, seeing the smiles on their faces … If I could’ve had more hours I would’ve stayed,” Valero said.
She delivers groceries for Instacart with her children in the backseat and does some sewing work, but neither of those jobs provides a steady income.
Like roughly 24% of renter households in New London County, Valero is “cost-burdened.” Another 22 percent of renters in the county are “severely cost-burdened,” according to the Urban Institute study.
The Urban Institute defines cost-burdened as those spending 30% to 40% of their income on housing costs, and severely cost-burdened as those spending 50% or more of their income on housing costs.
Valero was staying afloat during the pandemic with stimulus checks, unemployment and the income tax credits she received for her children.
She uses some of the disability check she receives for her oldest son, who is autistic, to pay the $535 in rent for the trailer lot each month, paying the rest with what she makes from Instacart.
She is typically left with $100 each week after paying $80-90 for gas, cell phone and car insurance. The rest of her money goes towards daycare and occupational therapy for her kids.
Behind on her car payments for the past three months, Valero is afraid she’ll lose it soon. She is also months behind on her electricity and credit card bills.
Valero has been applying to jobs for months, but said it’s hard when they ask for experience or won’t hire her if she can’t work weekends.
Valero feels she missed out on getting a Section 8 housing voucher when she left the Thames River Apartments prior to its closure, because she could be living in a bigger apartment and paying less.
Lack of family units
New London Mayor Michael Passero laments the lack of subsidized and affordable multi-family housing in the city.
“I wish the housing authority had an inventory of family units that were available,” Passero said. “There would be a waiting list, but at least we would have (a number of) units available for families that needed them.”
Annual audits from the New London Housing Authority and the state Department of Housing show a $500,00 drop in federal low-income operating subsidies between 2018, the year the Thames River Apartments closed, to 2020 when all of the subsidy went to Williams Park, the remaining federal property.
Editor’s note: This version corrects to 2020 the year that federal low-income operating subsidies to the New London Housing Authority were reduced by $500,000.