Formerly homeless families move toward stability at Niantic housing complex
East Lyme – There’s a caseworker at Rocky Neck Village dedicated to 12 families rebuilding their lives.
The complex of 56 townhouses went up last year with about two-thirds of the units reserved for families that make less – sometimes much less – than the area’s $102,700 median income.
Rebecca DeToma, a caseworker with the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, is an advisor and advocate for the dozen households whose incomes max out at $28,150 for a family of four.
Any given day might find her helping residents with things like getting their children signed up for school and making sure they are aware of all food assistance resources available to them. Sometimes she drives her clients to appointments when their cars break down, because not having a working automobile isn’t a practical option in the suburban, shoreline town.
She said English is a second language in four of her clients’ homes. A couple are domestic violence victims. One family moved to East Lyme to start over in a town with a well-regarded school system after finding schools in Waterbury to be unsafe.
“Things were turning for the worse and she said this was an opportunity to make a better life for her children,” DeToma said of her unnamed client. “She saw that the schools here are great and this is a very nice town and this is somewhere they can kind of start over.”
A memorandum of agreement between the homelessness agency and the Meriden-based Maynard Road Corporation management company further specifies her job duties. They include helping clients find or keep a job, providing healthcare referrals, and intervening in disputes in the event that clients again find themselves on the verge of homelessness due to eviction.
DeToma also works with the regional network of homelessness organizations to find new tenants as vacancies arise. The agency is currently working to secure a tenant for the first unit to become available since she began work there this summer.
She said the previous tenant had experienced domestic violence in Stamford before being referred to Rocky Neck Village’s supportive housing program because the women’s shelter in her hometown was full. Without family, friends and affordable childcare options in this part of the state, the woman chose not to renew her lease.
The supportive housing program, with its focus on promoting stability and self-sufficiency for those who’ve faced homelessness, is part of a collaboration between private developers and social service agencies through the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program (LIHTC). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development describes the tax credit program as “the most important resource for creating affordable housing in the United States today.”
The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) last year helped build 1,396 affordable housing units through federal tax credits, according to the agency’s annual report.
The U.S. government gives the tax credits to the finance authority, which awards the credits via a competitive process to private developers for affordable housing. A developer who is awarded the tax credits from the government can then turn around and sell them to investors for the funding needed to make it financially feasible to offer reduced rents.
Rocky Neck Village – erected at a cost of $20 million on 16 acres – is the product of Harold Foley, a Georgia-based affordable housing developer with two decades of experience in several southern states. He’s currently developing a one- and two-bedroom complex on Route 85 in Waterford.
Foley purchased the development rights for the Rocky Neck Village site for $1.5 million two years ago, after the previous owner got a judge to overturn a 2013 denial by the Zoning Commission.
“There are myriad characteristics that one has to incorporate into their development in order to prevail in obtaining the tax credits,” he said. “All of these boxes have to be checked.”
Allowing for hope
All 56 townhouses have three bedrooms, with 36 of the units earmarked for household incomes between $28,150 and $67,560 based on a family of four. Renters in the lowest income bracket served by DeToma pay $732 per month in the development where a full price unit fetches $2,300.
Kate Griffith, the director of housing and mental health supports for the Homeless Hospitality Center, said caseworkers provide on-going help so the clients at Rocky Neck Village can remain in the townhouse among neighbors with different economic, social and racial backgrounds who can provide a sense of community and inspiration.
“There’s a mental health benefit and there’s an emotional benefit of being able to be in an economically diverse space that allows for hope,” she said.
DeToma described a “sense of community” that manifests itself in well-maintained units and, especially now, in holiday decorations. The families help each other out, she said.
So does the surrounding, community according to Griffith. The school system and police department have been quick to help line families up with resources and respond to crises.
She recalled one time a tenant thought her abuser found her, which led to a response from police within minutes.
“It’s been a really nice embrace by the community and I think that speaks volumes about what we can ask our communities outside of New London and Norwich to do,” Griffith said.
Dispatch logs from the East Lyme Police Department show police have responded to calls or done patrol checks at the complex 40 times since it opened. Calls included 13 requests for assistance, five disturbances and one assault.
Cathy Zall, executive director of the homelessness agency, said support from the wider community disproves the idea that suburban towns don’t want low-income housing within their borders. East Lyme’s housing stock is a little over 6%, typical for a suburban town but much lower than nearby New London, which is at 22.5%.
Sometimes people just need a liaison like DeToma to help them see where the need is, according to Zall. Then it becomes easy to “do the right thing,” she said.
Zall described the multi-income approach as one of the biggest advantages of the tax credit affordable housing model, though she questioned some aspects of the program. One of them is the lack of practical public transportation options in some state-prioritized areas like East Lyme.
The 9 Town Transit bus line has a stop less than 0.4 miles from Rocky Neck Village down a main road with narrow shoulders and no sidewalks. It’s part of a limited, weekday schedule to and from New London.
While the tax credit scoring process gives two points to developments within a half mile of rapid transit hubs, Foley did not qualify for those points because central Connecticut’s CTfastrak line is the only eligible bus line under the current rules. But his total score of 73 out of 106 remained the highest out of the nine developers that applied for funding in 2019.
He received 12 points for putting his development in an area singled out by the state as “high opportunity” for having a lot of resources but not a lot of affordable housing.
“The points system has created an incentive for private developers to locate in some place like East Lyme, without transportation,” Zall said. “They get more points that way and I think there’s a lot of people questioning that,” she said. “Because is that really serving the lowest income people, to be someplace where there’s no transportation even though it’s what they call a high opportunity neighborhood?”
DeToma said all of her clients have cars, but added many have needed repairs lately.
“I feel like it’d be nice when they think about developments such as this, that they kind of factor that in,” she said about access to transportation. “Because this is a burden I’ve seen.”
Connecticut Housing Finance Authority CEO Nandini Natarajan said “there’s not one right answer” when it comes to where affordable housing developments get built.
“It’d be great if we could build every affordable housing development right near the town center or right near a bus stop or right near a train station,” she said. “But land isn’t always available that makes that building possible. Zoning doesn't always make it easy to have multi-family density in all different kinds of places that have transportation.”
The goal is to create opportunity, she said. If developers can show there’s a demand, then Natarajan said her agency is doing its job by helping to finance them.
“We’re allowing people to live where they want to live,” she said.
A majority of affordable housing developments in the state are still located in cities with more plentiful public transportation options, according to Natarajan.
“It’s something we’re concerned about, but I just don’t know that it’s realistic to say every affordable housing is going to get built in an area that’s rich with transportation,” she said.
Another deficiency in the current framework cited by Zall and Griffith became apparent as they tried to find a tenant for the recently vacated unit reserved for a family experiencing homelessness.
The Resident Selection Plan that guides the application process at Rocky Neck Village specifies numerous reasons – including a history of drug use, arrests or evictions – for which a household must or can be denied.
Griffith said finding a homeless family that doesn't have a disqualifying factor is like “a needle in a haystack.”
The selection plan, a copy of which was supplied by the housing finance authority, states an application will be denied if there is reasonable cause to believe any household member’s drug or alcohol use “may interfere with the health, safety, and right to peaceful enjoyment of the property by other residents.” A combination of various felony charges is also grounds for denial.
The document states applications will be rejected if the household has faced eviction within the past three years, or eviction at any time from properties managed by the same company overseeing Rocky Neck Village.
Applicants can appeal a rejection to the management company within two weeks. A domestic violence victim whose circumstances contributed to an eviction or a person with substance use disorder whose condition contributed to a criminal record could be grounds for a successful appeal. Federal laws prohibit housing discrimination against domestic violence victims and those with disabilities.
According to a report from the state Office of Legislative Research, a reasonable accommodation to prevent discrimination against someone with drug addiction as a disability might be to ignore the criminal record stemming from the disability.
Griffith said the current framework makes it difficult to match available units with the roughly 30 families in the region who have been identified as homeless, based on a list maintained by the regional network of social service providers.
“Since many of our population has evictions, they routinely get denied and have to file an appeal, delaying the application process and prolonging their homeless episodes,” she said.
Terry Nash Giovannucci, a community engagement manager with the housing finance authority and a member of the state Interagency Council on Supportive Housing, said officials involved in ending homelessness in the state are committed to finding ways to enhance communication between social service providers and property management companies when it comes to supportive housing.
Efforts include a state Department of Housing-sponsored training session scheduled for January for service providers and property managers to help them understand “how to better solidify their relationships so that they can work together to make sure things happen seamlessly, smoothly, quickly,” she said.
She said more open communication would allow service providers to make their case to the property managers who have discretion when it comes to which tenants get selected and which tenants don’t.
“It’s working with the property manager to say, ‘Listen, you’re going to go through the appeal process, you’re going to lose. Don’t add another two months to this person’s homelessness,’” she said.
‘Who’s really checking?’
Zall said she considers the New London Homeless Hospitality Center’s role in delivering supportive services for tax credit properties to be in the experimental phase.
Griffith, DeToma and Zall said it took months to obtain the documents necessary to get the supportive housing program up and running, from executing a memorandum of understanding to receiving a list of eligible tenants so DeToma could begin reaching out to them.
For Zall, it’s unclear who’s responsible for holding developers accountable for the promises they make in their tax credit application, or for making sure the social service agencies hold up their end of the bargain.
She emphasized the dichotomy inherent in a system that relies on private developers to meet the public need for safe, affordable housing.
“I think it's very important to remember that these are people who are in the housing business to make money,” she said of the developers seeking tax credits.
That leaves governmental agencies to ensure compliance, according to Zall.
Giovannucci said the state housing finance authority is responsible for making sure the physical property is in compliance, while the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services has oversight of supportive housing services at Rocky Neck Village.
But DMHAS spokesman Arthur Mongillo said his agency’s role is limited to reviewing the developer’s service plan in the application phase to ensure it meets all standards, and to work with the applicant to meet the standards if necessary.
“DMHAS doesn’t fund the services and has no real authority to conduct any site visits,“ he said.
Zall remains concerned about what she sees as a lack of ongoing management to hold both the developer and the service providers accountable.
“Once you’ve built your project and you’ve gotten your tax credits, who’s really checking?” she said.