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    Tuesday, May 28, 2024

    Recouping vouchers best way to improve New London affordable housing, officials say

    New London ― Rent revenue alone can’t cover the cost of maintaining — let alone refurbishing — the hundreds of affordable housing units in New London, city officials said on Monday.

    During a Day Editorial Board meeting, Mayor Michael Passero said while department heads have made strides in recent years in responding to infrastructure and social service issues at the city’s four senior and disabled housing complexes, there’s only so much that can be done at the municipal level.

    “There’s just not enough revenue to support those complexes,” Passero said. “It just doesn’t add up.”

    The city is home to three state-subsidized housing complexes — George Washington Carver Apartments on Colman Street, Gordon Court and Riozzi Court, and the federally subsidized Williams Park Apartments on Hempstead Street. All properties house people 62 or older and/or disabled.

    Rents for all three complexes typically are less than $500 per unit, which Passero called a reasonable figure if you’re a tenant, but far too low to cover the cost of replacing antiquated heating and cooling units, 60-year-old furnishings or the cost of an emergency roof rupture.

    The biggest disadvantage facing the town is the decade-old loss of its Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program, Passero said. The vouchers are part of a federal program to assist families, the elderly and disabled with low incomes to afford housing. The voucher holders pay 30% of their monthly adjusted income for rent and utilities, and the program pays the rest of the rent.

    In 2013, the Housing Authority lost the ability to administer 114 vouchers and surrendered authority over its voucher program because it was operating inefficiently, according to the state Department of Housing.

    The program was transferred to the DOH, which currently administers more than 350 vouchers in the city.

    “The vouchers are the key to running a housing authority,” Passero said, because they would generate revenue for the housing authority.

    If a housing authority manages the program well, it can generate more fees than it needs to run the program. The surplus might allow an authority to hire additional staff, improve properties or assist families.

    Passero and Housing Authority Executive Director Kolisha Kedron said they are pursuing ways to re-introduce the voucher program back to the city, though there is no formal timeline for such a move.

    In the interim, the city has been forced to seek building repair funding as needs arise. Kedron described a hole in the roof of the George Washington Carver complex in 2020 as “big enough to see the sky” that was addressed with a packet of state “critical needs” funding until a new roof was added.

    She said the roof problem was just one of several chronic infrastructure and aesthetic issues that needed addressing, along with door frames, electric panel and boilers.

    “Some of these apartments have not had substantial rehabs since they were built in the 1960s,” Kedron said. “The costs for that work are mind-blowing. The decision to give up those vouchers is still having a ripple effect.”

    Aside from the nuts-and-bolts challenges of keeping an affordable housing complex safe and operational with limited funding is the human factor, said Director of Human Services Jeanne Milstein.

    She said many of the tenants are older folks with dementia or other mental health issues, some without a family safety net. Milstein said her staff works in concert with the city’s fire department – usually the first agency called to a complex for a crisis – to try to provide follow-up care for a resident.

    Passero said Housing Authority staff simply don’t have the expertise to provide the specialized services those residents need.

    “We depend on other agencies for that work,” he said. “And sometimes it falls apart and is not delivered.”

    Despite the challenges, Passero said the city is in a much better position to improve the quality of its affordable housing stock.

    “It’s been a heavy lift throughout my administration and was a time-consuming part of my first term,” he said, noting the successful relocation of 117 families from the now demolished Thames River Apartments where he said tenants resided in “unspeakable conditions.”

    “Our long-term plans center on how to create and re-envision our stock of housing that doesn’t involve selling it off,” he said.

    j.penney@theday.com

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