Last families leave Thames River Apartments
New London — For all its faults — and there were many — the Thames River Apartments on Crystal Avenue was a community.
“I grew up here. I had my first apartment here. I had family here. We looked after one another. You had to be here to understand,” said Yolanda Thornton-Fitch.
On a break from work, Thornton-Fitch walked into the courtyard at the 124-unit federally subsidized complex on Tuesday to reminisce and shed a tear for her former home as the final few families loaded their belongings into U-Hauls and personal vehicles.
“I came by to say my goodbyes,” she said.
New London Housing Authority employees were on hand to padlock the doors of each of the three nine-story buildings as the residents drove off. Utilities were expected to be shut off this week. It will mark the end of an era that some have called a warehousing of the city’s poorest families.
The fate of the buildings is likely a wrecking ball.
“This is it. It’s a big accomplishment for the city. Personally, I think the deeply subsidized housing in that location was a black eye for the city,” said Mayor Michael Passero. “That’s not a reflection on the people there. Nobody seems to know how this was zoned for residential … under the bridge in the middle of an industrial zone.”
Since taking office in 2016, Passero has worked with the housing authority to address the deteriorating conditions at the high rises even as the housing authority shuffled executive directors and complaints from residents grew louder.
Pressure was also on from Attorney Robert Reardon, who after more than a decade of representing residents in a class-action lawsuit against the housing authority, obtained a court-stipulated agreement in 2014 that mandated safe and sanitary homes for the residents.
The suit had called attention to the lack of security, crime, mold, rodents and general lack of maintenance at the high rises, which are reserved for families.
A 2011 physical viability needs study determined there was $4.6 million in immediate repairs and renovations needed at Thames River Apartments and an additional $2.27 million needed within the next five years.
After a failed attempt to enlist a developer to build replacement homes, the Housing Authority obtained permission from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to abandon the complex in exchange for the Section 8, or “housing choice vouchers,” which provide subsidies for private residences. Thames River tenants will continue to pay about 30 percent of their monthly income in rent with the vouchers.
The New London Housing Authority hired the Glendower Group Inc. to find new homes and vacate the entire complex. More than 300 people have scattered across the region into houses and apartments.
The first family moved out in January. There were still 10 families on Saturday when a leak from an unoccupied seventh-floor apartment in Building B migrated to a first-floor alarm panel that shorted and sparked a fire. The cause was ruled accidental.
It led to the evacuation of the two families in the building and more concern for residents who were spread across the three buildings, said Betsy Gibson, the chairwoman of the Housing Authority Board of Commissioners.
There had been 10 families on Saturday, but just three families were left by Tuesday. There had been a total of 117 families when the process started.
“The fire certainly is the motivator when it comes down to it,” Gibson said of the decision to hasten the process. “It just wasn’t safe anymore.”
Two of the three families will be put up at hotels for a day or two until the final lease documents are signed, which Gibson said is expected this week.
Dalixa Rivera, a mother of three, was among the last out and watched her two sons, Jeremy and Jacob Cortes, maneuver a television into the back of a car. Rivera said despite all the problems throughout the building, her home was clean and had few problems in her 12 years there.
“It’s sad. I have a lot of memories here,” Rivera said.
Gibson joined the housing authority employees with New London Chief Administrative officer Steve Fields to oversee the closing of the buildings.
There was one hiccup. Jesus Acosta and his son, Antonio, were trying to beat the clock and moving belongings into a rented U-Haul when he lost the truck keys. The keys turned up before 1 p.m. on top of a Tupperware lid in the back of the U-Haul. The mishap led to him being the last out.
Acosta did not have much to say about living conditions at Thames River Apartments but did say the staff had always been supportive.
A single father of three, Acosta has lived at Thames River for the past five years while he dug out from some financial hardships. Before moving in, Acosta said he was homeless and for a time living with his sons in the basement at a friend’s home.
“It’s been a blessing. It gave me a chance,” Acosta said. “My life got better from this place, believe it or not. I went from homeless to having a store.”
Acosta runs A&J All-Star Sports at the Crystal Mall and is moving to Norwich with his sons.
The housing authority is expected to sell the 15 acres where the high rises are located to the city for $184,000 — its estimated value after subtracting the nearly $1 million in estimated demolition costs.
Passero said he expects the City Council to take up a sales and purchase agreement later his month. While Passero said he expects the land to be valuable property that could enhance State Pier operations, he said it is unclear exactly what the future will hold.
“The goal of the city is to generate the greatest revenue stream from that property that we can,” Passero said.