Housing advocates find hope in local solutions at Elevate panel
New London — Through development projects in New London, members of one family lost two houses, and they were never able to recover the wealth they lost as a result.
A high school student commented, "I'm always like the only person of color within my friends. They all live, like, near the water, and I live by the highway. An older adult noticed there are "different New Londons."
"It was a mixed neighborhood, Irish, Jews, Italians. There was five Black families on the street," another person said. "Five days a week, we were walking hand in hand to school. There was no racial disparities. We just got along. Now the majority of the Black community live on the northern end of town."
These are some of the stories Nakia Hamlett, a psychology professor at Connecticut College, shared from 300 pages of transcripts of interviews with New London community members. This is part of the first phase of the Just Futures Narratives Research Project, which aims to "develop community-based reparative solutions for historic racism."
On Thursday, Hamlett specifically focused on housing as part of an "Infrastructure Bill and Housing Implications" panel during Connecticut College's two-day social justice conference, called Elevate. The moderator was Carlos Virgen, assistant manager for audience development at The Day.
When the discussion was envisioned, it was with hope of significant funding from the federal infrastructure bill to address housing issues, but that turned out not to be the case.
Peter Harrison, senior policy fellow at Desegregate Connecticut, said while there's not much help coming from the federal government, there are fights at the state level to change zoning policies, allow more multifamily housing, and allow smaller lots for new single-family homes.
Harrison noted that well over 80% of Connecticut effectively only allows for the construction of single-family homes, which he said isn't organic but the result of policies at all levels of government that have isolated certain people in certain parts of the state.
"There's an immense opportunity at the state level to promote these kinds of changes to start undoing the damage done in the 20th century," he said. "It's going to take a very long time. There's no magic bullet to it."
Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, director of operations for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and adjunct faculty member at Three Rivers Community College, had shared some of this 20th-century history.
She noted that when private companies built workforce housing in the early 1900s, it was only for white workers. After the Great Depression, Black neighborhoods and Jewish neighborhoods were downgraded for mortgages, a practice known as redlining that continued for decades.
Then there came urban renewal, such as the Winthrop Cove Redevelopment Project in the 1960s, when around 700 families were displaced who were disproportionately people of color.
The goals of the Fair Housing Act, passed in 1968, were to end individual acts of housing discrimination and to promote policies that promote integration, Darby-Hudgens said. While the country has done an OK job with the first part, she said, "We have done a terrible job, especially in the Northeast and even more so in Connecticut, in promoting that second piece."
She said Connecticut is among the 15 most-segregated states in the country and is "more segregated now than we were even in 2015." She said almost 73% of nonwhite people live in only 13% of the state's cities and towns.
Darby-Hudgens said if you drive along Ocean Avenue in New London, the neighborhood changes from being predominantly people of color to predominantly white.
This observation was similar to another Elevate session that happened on Zoom later Thursday afternoon examining the question, "What makes the other side of town the 'other side' of town?" In breakout sessions, people from both Connecticut College and the community discussed what differences they noticed between the northern and southern parts of town, and how this impacts them.
"I think it's kind of the elephant in the room around New London," said Clayton Potter, community engagement and Genesis program coordinator at Connecticut College. He said when you're traveling down Ocean Avenue or Montauk Avenue, you notice differences in things like the size of the homes, the amount of businesses, and the amount of traffic.
Potter said decisions about how the city was designed have an impact today on what schools people attend, access to transportation, the economy, use of green space, and more.
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