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    Housing Solutions Lab
    Saturday, July 13, 2024
     

    Shared apartments shelter some, displace others in New London

     
     
    Jose Miguel Pichardo and Yoselin Guzman at the home they share with family members in New London on Sunday, March 26, 2023. The couple was displaced from an apartment when it was converted to shared apartments and later purchased their own home. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Yoselin Guzman cleans the home she shares with family members in New London on Sunday, March 26, 2023. Her family lived with relatives, then purchased a home, after being displaced from an apartment that was converted to shared apartments. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    A view of 35-39 Linden St., New London Friday, June 2. The building was recently converted to shared apartments. (Johana Vazquez/The Day)
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    A view of 195 Williams St., New London, a building owned and operated as shared apartments the Homeless Hospitality Center, June 2. (Johana Vazquez/The Day)
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    New London ― As Yoselin Guzman held the keys to her new home in New London in March, she felt happy and calm to finally have a place of her own again.

    The past few months had been filled with stress, discomfort and uncertainty.

    Last November, Guzman and her husband Jose Miguel Pichardo received a letter notifying them they had 30 days to leave their apartment of nine years at 39 Linden St. shortly after the multi-family building was sold.

    The building would later be advertised by McElwee Property Management as “a hotel-like environment” with private rooms for rent.

    The owner of McElwee Property says he’s providing an affordable alternative to housing.

    On the other side of the city, David Young, a retired veteran, has shared an apartment with others at 195 Williams St. for almost five years because he said it is the only thing he can afford in the area.

    Jamie Taylor is president of the Sharing Housing Institute, a nationwide training system on effective shared housing practices. Taylor said sharing households has gathered more attention across the country as the market rate for rentals continues to be unaffordable to many.

    Someone in the city who is earning a $40,150 pre-tax annual income, or 50% of the area median income, can afford a maximum rent of $1,075 for a one-bed apartment, according to 2023 HUD Income Limits. The maximum rent includes utilities and is based on the affordability standard that a household should not pay more than 30% of its annual income on housing costs.

    According to Rent Data, a website aggregating housing data, the median-priced one-bedroom unit in the New London-Norwich area is $1,251.

    The Day investigated how people who are often unrelated are sharing apartments, paying individual or divided rent, in order to afford a place to live in the city. The lack of affordable housing in a tight market has resulted in displaced families.

    Forced out

    Guzman can almost always be seen wearing her cleaning uniform. She and her husband work seven days a week cleaning libraries, clinics and offices across the region. They are hired as subcontractors and proudly own an independent cleaning business.

    One of their subcontracting jobs is cleaning The Day offices at 47 Eugene O’Neill Drive.

    The couple immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic 21 years ago with aspirations to give their children a good life.

    Guzman in March said she loved the four-bedroom unit on the third floor at 39 Linden St. as it was spacious and affordable. She said they paid $1,050 a month for the apartment and never once missed a payment.

    Guzman resided there with her husband and youngest son, who is 30 and deaf. Her older son had left for the U.S. Marine Corps years ago and her daughter left to start her own family.

    Guzman, who speaks mostly Spanish, was informed by her daughter in October that their landlord of nine years said he was planning to sell the building. She said numerous prospective buyers came to see the building and within two weeks the landlord had a buyer.

    In a letter Nov. 18, the new landlord Michael McElwee, of McElwee Property Management, notified the couple their lease was being terminated and they had 30 days to move out.

    “We were surprised,” Guzman said. “We thought since it was an occupied three-family home that they would keep renting to us and not evict us.”

    Guzman said the former landlord had not informed them their annual lease had become a month-to-month lease.

    McElwee said with a monthly lease, a new landlord can terminate a lease and is required to give tenants a minimum 30 days to move out.

    The couple immediately began to search for a new place. Guzman said all the multi-family apartments with two bedrooms they looked at were expensive, priced between $1,700 to $1,800, and the extended stay hotel rooms were booked.

    She said McElwee eventually gave them until Jan. 12 to leave. They left before January, placing their belongings into a storage unit and moving in with their daughter in Salem.

    The commute to and from work in the city suddenly added a hurdle to their busy schedules. Guzman said she didn’t feel comfortable taking her daughter’s space as six of them squeezed into a two-bedroom home.

    Seeing how expensive rents were, Guzman said they decided it was better to buy a home. During that process, she saw that her former home on Linden Street was listed online with rooms in each unit being rented for $700 to $750.

    Temporary living

    In an interview at The Day this past week, McElwee said he started his business more than two years ago. He was inspired to rent rooms when he visited his father living on Social Security in a rented room in New Jersey.

    “I saw that you could help out more people by renting by room, especially low-income people,” he said.

    McElwee said he grew up poor in Groton and lived on his own by the age of 17. He said he worked for Electric Boat in Rhode Island after graduating high school but wanted to start his own business.

    Using a Federal Housing Administration loan, McElwee said he purchased his first home on Stewart Avenue in New London.

    McElwee and his business partners now have 11 buildings in New London, seven of which are apartment buildings, and rent 120 rooms.

    He said 94 of the rooms are currently occupied by people transitioning out of homelessness, single Navy sailors, new Electric Boat workers from outside the area looking for a more permanent place to live, and members of the Hispanic community.

    McElwee said the rent at his properties ranges from $650 to $750 and includes WiFi, electricity, heat and water. He said most tenants live in the rooms for a couple of months and pay month-to-month.

    The rooms come furnished with a bed and a dresser and there are periodic cleaning services. He said the rooms do not lock from the outside.

    McElwee said he does not need a permit from the city to have this arrangement. He said the city allows up to five unrelated people to live in an apartment.

    Per city zoning regulations, “family” is defined as those related by blood, marriage or adoption or a group of not more than five people who are not related living in a dwelling unit.

    City Planning and Zoning Official Michelle Scovish said whether they are related or not, those living in a single-family home or unit have to live cooperatively like a family. She said this could be someone who lives with a roommate they found on Facebook and share common space and rent.

    But she said it cannot be a boarding house, which sometimes have padlocks or key locks to individual rooms.

    Scovish said boarding houses are unlawful, but a few in the city have been grandfathered.

    City regulations define boarding houses as buildings in which rooms are rented for 3 to 15 people on either a transient or permanent basis. Scovish said they can’t have cooking equipment such as a cooktop or microwave in each room.

    When he started in 2020, McElwee said it was difficult to find houses, and it continues to be, with most of the houses available for sale being occupied. He liked the size of the buildings on Linden Street and the company purchased two.

    McElwee said he has been able to invest $40,000 into renovating the last four homes the company purchased. He said he noticed the living rooms at past properties were not being used, so the living rooms at 35-39 Linden St. were converted into rented rooms. He said each unit went from four to five rooms and the building went from 12 rooms to 15.

    McElwee said it is tough displacing people, but he looks at it as helping more people find an affordable alternative.

    “Sure, I look like a monster for moving out a family that’s been living there for 10 years, but on the flip side I’m providing housing for 120 people,” he said. “Where can someone go to rent a place for $750 with everything included?”

    An effect of the housing crisis

    The Shared Housing Institute defines shared housing as “two or more people living together and sharing common space in temporary or permanent housing.” This could be sober homes, halfway houses, dormitories, multi-generational homes and shared apartments.

    The institute promotes shared housing to prevent and end homelessness.

    Taylor said there’s a big need for housing in Connecticut and across the country, with the rental market so tight and expensive.

    Taylor said the institute is not against boarding houses as a form of shared housing, adding they can work if they are well run and kept clean. She said boarding houses, similar to single-room occupancy units, were a form of affordable housing commonly used in the past.

    Beginning in the 1950s, policymakers across the nation began to reduce the number of single-room residences and it is estimated 1 million SRO units were lost between the 1970s and the 1990s.

    “They (boarding houses) have come to mean something run-down, but it doesn’t have to be,” she said.

    Sharing rent

    Cathy Zall, executive director of the Homeless Hospitality Center, said the center owns five multi-family homes where it facilitates people having roommates and sharing rent.

    Differing from McElwee’s properties, the tenants at the center’s properties are listed in an annual lease and split the cost of rent and utilities. They share a living room, kitchen and bathroom.

    Zall said the center helps manage roommate relations, the handling of chores and more. She said it is much like college roommates sharing an apartment.

    Zall said sharing an apartment is providing housing for people at all income levels, although she said it’s more urgent for those with limited incomes. She said rents are high and some people, such as seniors, can’t afford $1,500 a month for an apartment.

    “We have to start thinking different like this,” she said. “Not everyone can have their own kitchens and bathrooms, not with where we are at in the housing market these days.”

    She said the people in these apartments have leases and therefore have tenant’s rights like everybody else.

    At 68, David Young is a tenant at a home owned by the Homeless Hospitality Center at 195 Williams St. in an apartment at a blue two-story home with a wraparound porch.

    Young has shared the four-bedroom apartment with others for the past five years and currently has two roommates. He said he pays roughly $500 a month for rent and utilities.

    “I like it because I have my own space and it’s a quiet neighborhood,” he said.

    During an interview at his apartment, Young and one of his roommates talked about having chores and keeping the living room and kitchen clean.

    Young said after leaving the Navy in 1987, he lived in Norwich and struggled to maintain a stable job and apartment.

    More than five years ago, Young said he sought transitional housing with the Homeless Hospitality Center. The center helped place him in the apartment on Williams Street.

    Young, now retired due to health issues, said he relies on his Social Security checks and doesn’t do much with his days, other than take care of medical appointments. When the sun starts to set, he said he likes to sit on the porch or at Williams Park across the street.

    A newfound home

    After more than two months searching for a home, Guzman and Pichardo were able to purchase a single-family home near C.B. Jennings International Elementary Magnet School.

    Looking back, Guzman said she was happy to no longer feel the stress she had felt to move and find a new place in a short span of time.

    Guzman said what hurt most was not being able to have a proper Christmas with her family, preparing a dinner and putting up a tree. She said they instead spent the day surrounded in boxes of their packed things.

    “Yo no quiero volver vivir una experiencia así,” she said, meaning “I don’t want to relive an experience like that again.”

    j.vazquez@theday.com

    Definitions in City Regulations

    Family: one or more persons related by blood, marriage or adoption or a group of not more than five people who are not related living in a dwelling unit and maintaining a common household.

    Boarding house: buildings in which rooms are rented providing sleeping accommodations for more than 3 people, but not more than 15 people, on either a transient or permanent basis, with or without meals, but without separate cooking facilities for individual occupants; if there are sleeping accommodations for more than 15 persons it shall be considered a hotel.

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