A Home for a Home

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No one disagrees that Vidal Court has problems. Elevators in the low-to-moderate-income complex in Stamford, Connecticut operate sporadically; the stairwells smell of urine; lead paint is chipping off the walls. The open-air hallways are magnets for drug dealers. The question is: How to fix them?

The local Housing Authority’s proposed solution: Demolish the 216-unit development and replace it with smaller mixed-income townhouses and garden apartments. This strategy is already underway elsewhere in Stamford and in more than 100 other cities across the country as part of or, in the case of Vidal, inspired by the federal Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere, a.k.a. HOPE VI. While the program provides tens of thousands of dollars to spruce up public housing developments, Stamford tenants and labor officials say it does so at the cost of losing hundreds of essential units of affordable housing.

To turn that argument into action, the city’s legislature unanimously passed an ordinance on October 1 requiring that owners of government-subsidized housing replace every unit they demolish, or convert to market rate, with an apartment renting for the same price. The so-called “one-for-one” law, which applies to tenants with incomes below 50 percent of the local median, is the first such law passed anywhere in the country since 1995.

“This will ensure that demolition does not occur for frivolous reasons, for profit, or for political reasons that are not in the best interest of the tenants and the city of Stamford as a whole,” says Shanon Jacovino, director of the AFL-CIO Stamford Organizing Project, which, along with a coalition of public housing tenants, first proposed the bill last spring.

The ordinance is a throwback to a provision of the Housing Act of 1937 that Congress did away with six years ago. At that time, its opponents argued the replacement requirement was too costly and therefore discouraged property owners from demolishing vacant drug- and crime-infested apartments.

“In large urban areas, where you had a lot of these obsolete units, the cost of the land was so prohibitive that you could not replace those units,” says Julio Barreto, director of legislation and program development for the National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officers (NAHRO), which supported the repeal. Once you got rid of that requirement, he argues, “then you gave housing agencies more flexibility in providing housing for people.”

The Stamford Organizing Project argues, however, that “more flexibility” was too much. As soon as the federal one-for-one rule was lifted in 1995, the Stamford Housing Authority demolished several high-rises in Southfield Village, a dilapidated public housing complex in the poorest neighborhood in the city. The agency quickly made the village its poster child for bringing HOPE VI to Stamford, arguing that the 1930s buildings were drug-ridden and in need of major capital repairs. In October 1997, the agency received a $26.4 million HOPE VI grant to replace the remaining cluster of low-rise buildings with handsome townhouses and garden-style apartments. This summer, the first tenants moved into Southwood Square, the new privately owned complex, which includes a swimming pool and fitness center.

No one disagrees that the new apartments look much better, but the number of low-income apartments lost does not look so good: The number dropped significantly, to 285 from the 502 that had been in Southfield Village. The Housing Authority insists that the HOPE VI grant did not cover replacing the 256 apartments that were in the towers it tore down in 1995, and since more than 50 percent of those units were vacant when the wrecking ball hit, there was no need to replace them.

It’s this very logic that some housing advocates say has contributed to the shortage of affordable apartments over the last few years. According to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, those new developments on average cut the number of low-income units by 70 to 75 percent.

At the very least, members of the Stamford Organizing Project hope, the “one for one” ordinance will ensure that the city’s affordable housing stock doesn’t get any smaller. “Our members, many of them residents of public housing, are getting priced out of the market,” says Jacovino. A city of 117,000, Stamford sits in a section of Fairfield County with some of the highest rents in the nation, third behind San Francisco and San Jose, California. Despite having the country’s highest median income–$109,800 for a family of four–about a quarter of residents in Waterside, home to Southwood Square, live at or below the poverty level. With virtually every public housing unit occupied, an affordable apartment is not easy to come by.

“I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to live better,” says Wendy Nelson, vice president of the tenants’ association at Vidal Court, a state-subsidized complex. “But it’s a matter of if us low-income people will be able to live in these nicer apartments they are talking about.”

Of course, as other cities have discovered over the years, making one-for-one viable is not easy, in large part due to costs the federal government has not been willing to cover. Hartford had a one-for-one replacement ordinance that required private developers to pay into a housing fund for every low-income apartment they demolished or price-hiked. Six years ago, as Congress voted to do away with its one-for-one provision, a newly elected block of conservative legislators in Hartford gutted their local law. In Seattle, the Housing Authority recently signed a memorandum of agreement to replace every unit in its most recent Hope VI project, but not necessarily for tenants with the same low income levels as those living in the old building.

In Stamford, while Mayor Dannell Malloy supports the ordinance, he has his own set of worries. If HUD does not increase funding for replacement units and relax its rules on density, he says, developments like Southwood Square many not be possible in the future. “The design of HOPE VI is to encourage a decrease in density,” Malloy says. “It does not pay for all replacement units.” And with $44 million worth of renovations needed on the city’s three state-financed complexes, including Vidal Court, none of which are eligible for HOPE VI funds, money is already expected to be tight.

Despite these challenges, the Housing Authority insists it has creative funding plans to make it work. Affordable housing development in Stamford can rely on funds generated by market-rate units in mixed-income developments, an approach Richard Fox, executive director of the Authority, calls “Robin Hood.”

“We are going to have to harness that thriving economy to provide low- and moderate-income housing,” Fox says, adding that available tax credits and a booming real estate market will drive private financing to affordable housing developments. And if the economy takes a nosedive? Given Stamford’s proximity to New York City, says Fox, there will always be a demand for housing there.

Malloy laments that if the ordinance allowed new replacement units to be sold rather than rented–a possibility that had been discussed–then the city would be able to compete for state and federal funds slated for homeownership.

Whatever the funding strategy, tenants and union members hope the ordinance will head off plans to demolish any more affordable housing. “It’s obvious that there was a bigger plan here,” says Clay Smith, an organizer with the Stamford Organizing Project. “I think people wanted to get out of running from one place to another putting out fires and come up with solution that would preserve public housing.”

Matthew Strozier is a reporter for the Stamford Advocate.

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