Leaving the 'lost city': Life after the high-rises
New London — For a stay-at-home mother with a young son with health issues, Jeanne Ward said the options for subsidized housing are extremely limited.
It’s the reason Ward, a mother of four, said that the Thames River Apartments on Crystal Avenue, despite being situated smack in the middle of an industrial area and near a transfer station, appeared to be her best option.
She hadn’t expected she later would be pasting a pizza box to the wall to cover a hole in the hallway, praying for clear and not brown water in her tub and hanging her belongings to dry after a flood in her apartment from an overflowed toilet just before Christmas.
Her experiences were similar to Jeanette Parker's, a 42-year-old single mother who moved in to one of the high-rises in 2016, while still recovering from open-heart surgery and unable to work.
The tightknit community was comforting but the deteriorating conditions at the aging buildings quickly became apparent — lukewarm instead of hot water on occasion, crumbling walls, mold, mice and a lack of security. All this despite the fact that nearly everyone at the complex had children.
Ward and Parker were some of the loudest advocates for change and among the first of the residents to move out, thanks in part to pressure from a class-action lawsuit by local attorney Robert Reardon and later a revived push by the city administration and Housing Authority to abandon the buildings.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which subsidizing rents at the 124-unit complex, approved issuance of Section 8 vouchers for residents last year in exchange for declaring the buildings obsolete and not worth the cost of renovations.
Buildings almost empty
Kolisha Fiore, executive director of the Housing Authority, said 17 families remain in the complex as a July 6 deadline for vacancy approaches. She said she expected all 17 to have applications for new homes pending by week's end.
New Haven-based Glendower Group was hired by the Housing Authority to work with residents to find homes.
After receiving their Section 8 vouchers, families must submit a Request for Tenancy Approval, or RTA, to allow representatives from Glendower to determine if the apartment meets the criteria for HUD's Housing Choice Voucher program.
Fiore said that at least eight families have scheduled inspections at their new homes.
As complete vacancy nears, Fiore said the Housing Authority remains in close contact with all parties involved "to ensure things keep moving along smoothly."
With expectation of the remaining families moving out within the next few weeks, Fiore said she did not expect that closing one building and moving everyone into the other would be necessary.
"We have locked all exterior doors to the building to help make the residents feel safer and have provided them all with keys," Fiore said in an email. "We also consolidated to one laundry room and have locked that as well so only residents with keys can access it."
'A lost city'
Standing outside her new four-bedroom home off Jefferson Avenue this week, Ward, 35, greeted her twin 12-year-old son and daughter, Jeanique and Jahliek, with a welcoming smile.
“They love it and I’m thankful for the bigger place,” Ward said. “I can honestly say I haven’t slept so good since I left Crystal Avenue, not having to think about what was going to happen next.”
Ward is working with children and training for a position with New London Youth and Family Services. And while there is a sense of a loss of community, Ward said the benefits outweigh the burdens of living in a place she said felt like it already was abandoned.
Her kids are happy, too.
“I love this house,” Jeanique said. "I am kind of sad because I miss my friends but it’s like we have our own place to ourselves now.”
Parker said the move to an apartment in Norwich was a giant stress release.
“The big difference is safety,” Parker said. “I feel safe and secure. I don’t have any vermin running around. They take care of the property very well.”
Both Parker and Ward were advocates for the more than 250 residents at Thames River Apartments — Parker as a member of the Housing Authority and Ward as a representative for a tenant group.
Parker recalled one visit to the apartment of one woman complaining of mold. Parker, herself, has asthma problems.
“She complained and complained and no one was doing anything,” Parker said.
She recalls another mother cooking on the stove and watching roaches crawl out of the oven as it heated up.
“I said, 'I have to do something. I can’t live in these conditions,'” she said.
“It was bad,” Ward said. “Where is the compassion for your residents? How did it get so bad? I think they kept pushing us under the rug because it didn’t matter. We were like a lost city over there, surrounded by an industrial environment. No human being should be living in that place.”
Ward said she often wondered why the complex was built where it was, under the Gold Star Memorial Bridge and mostly separated from the rest of the city.
“Why would you put families and elderly in this area? That bothered me a lot,” she said.
Children became a central focus of the two women, who organized a special kids’ appreciation day that turned into a weekend event.
Parker said many of the residents had lived there for years, others were born there and now raising their own children. She’d also wondered why some didn’t take better care of their own places.
“At first, I didn’t understand. But I think it was also a community that gave up on themselves and gave up on the community because they got frustrated,” Parker said. “There were people from the outside doing whatever they wanted. Our kids should be able to run around in a safe environment without getting shot.”
Security was one of the focuses of the class-action suit because of several shootings at the complex, where doors to the outside remained unlocked.
“I did what I did for the community because it needed it. At the end of the day, I hope people are happy in what me and Jeanne did and hope people are enjoying themselves and at peace, comfortable without having to worry about their children," Ward said. "People got backyards now.”
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