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HUD approves disposition of Thames River Apartments

New London — The New London Housing Authority reached a milestone in its effort to relocate the residents of the troubled Thames River Apartments this week with federal approval of its application to dispose of the property.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Monday sent notification to the Housing Authority that authorizes the disposal of the property. The approval opens the door for an application to HUD for tenant protection vouchers, or Section 8 vouchers, to allow for relocation of the more than 300 residents there.

HUD agreed with what city officials and residents have recognized for years, that the property “is not suited for multifamily use.”

“Although the current zoning is high-density residential, the property is surrounded on three sides by industrial use ... and the site is located under and adjacent to Interstate 95,” wrote Jane B. Hornstein, director of HUD’s special application center.

Housing Authority Executive Director Roy Boling said the formal approval was needed to be able to proceed with the relocation of families from the 124-unit, federally subsidized complex. He said he foresees no hurdles to the issuance of the highly anticipated vouchers, though he could not provide a timeline. The goal is to move all of the residents out by year’s end.

Mayor Michael Passero said the condition of the Crystal Avenue high-rises has long been a concern that until recently had not been adequately addressed.

“New London is joining cities all over the nation that have moved away from the old model of subsidized housing represented by the Crystal Avenue development. New London is ending an era of isolating people in substandard housing,” Passero said in a statement.

The city is expected to eventually purchase the 9.13-acre property from the Housing Authority. An appraiser puts the worth of the property, after subtracting the demolition costs, at $185,000. City officials have talked about the economic development potential of the property, in part because of its proximity to one of only three commercial ports in the state.

Residents have for years complained about the lack of maintenance, safety issues and pest and bug infestations at the apartment complex, complaints that culminated with a class-action lawsuit that lingered in the court system for more than a decade.

New London attorney Robert Reardon, who represents the residents, secured a 2014 stipulated judgment with the Housing Authority that mandated either a rehabilitation of the existing buildings or relocation of the residents. He has continued to press for movement since deadlines in the judgement already have passed.

Last winter was a turning point for the Housing Authority, when Passero said boiler problems had officials in planning stages to react to a humanitarian crisis. Complaints about a lack of hot water were growing and the placement of a mobile boiler outside the complex prompted the concerns.

After the removal of the authority's former Executive Director Sue Shontell, the Housing Authority board of commissioners hired two different interim directors before signing a contract with Boling, the former deputy executive director of financing and planning for the Hartford Housing Authority.

The board of commissioners recently voted to prepare a request for qualifications from outside management companies.

Passero said that, with winter approaching, he did not want to be in a situation where he is forced to think about enacting an emergency relocation plan, part of the reason the relocation of residents is a priority.

HUD, in its approval notice, noted that the Housing Authority does not have adequate resources to address unforeseen issues with the boiler system.

Boling said the next major task will be finding homes where the residents want to live. Boling said that about 60 of the Crystal Avenue families picked New London as their first preference. It remains unclear how many Section 8 approved apartments are available in New London, but Boling admits it will be a daunting task to meet all of the requests.

The Glendower Group, the organization hired to perform assessments and spearhead the relocation process, will be part of a collaborative effort with the city and Housing Authority.

The Housing Authority, according to HUD guidelines, has 90 days from the date of approval to begin the relocation process and 210 days to complete the relocation of the residents.

Housing Authority board member Kathleen Mitchell said that while she was encouraged by the HUD approval, the city appears to be woefully unprepared for relocating the residents. She cast doubt on the expectation that those who want to stay in New London will be able to.

“I think (Thames River Apartments residents) assumed, and rightfully so, there were units for those that wanted to stay here,” Mitchell said. “It bothers me that people, especially those with children, will be forced into moving somewhere else because the city did not prepare ahead of time."

Mitchell has argued that the rehabilitation of the complex should have been seriously considered and that many residents have expressed interest in staying in the housing complex.

A representative from the Thames River Apartments resident advisory group declined to comment.

Passero said the goal will be to accommodate every family that wants to stay in the city, with priority given to those with children in the school system. Glendower has gathered first, second and third choices from residents during recent assessments.

There will be a meeting with Thames River residents with HUD and Glendower officials on Oct. 12 to talk about the next steps.

The Housing Authority has yet to identify how it will fund the estimated $622,729 in relocation expenses, which includes fees paid to Glendower.

g.smith@theday.com

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