Housing Board to Rebuild Rundown Conn. Neighborhood

One developer aims to transform a neighborhood blighted by broken beer bottles, chairs and drug paraphernalia into a place where children can play.

📅   Wed May 20, 2015 - Northeast Edition
Penelope Overton - (Waterbury) Republican-American


At Lawlor’s urging, the Waterbury Housing Authority is planning to demolish the homes and clear the lots and, in their place, build a series of two-story, Victorian-inspired duplexes.
At Lawlor’s urging, the Waterbury Housing Authority is planning to demolish the homes and clear the lots and, in their place, build a series of two-story, Victorian-inspired duplexes.

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) Not so long ago, Jim Lawlor believed that Willow Street, with its blighted houses, weed-choked vacant lots and drug crime, was no place to raise children.

When a developer asked for his support for the renovation of an apartment building there, Lawlor, the chairman of the city’s housing board, immediately said no, children don’t belong there.

“Then it hit me,” Lawlor said. “Willow isn’t going to fix itself.”

Instead of running from Willow, Lawlor decided to embrace the struggling neighborhood. He devised a $38 million proposal to buy, raze, and rebuild the entire city block of West Grove Street.

It would be the Authority’s first new construction in two decades. In recent years, at the direction of its former chairman, WHA has taken steps to demolish its public housing, not add to it.

West Grove is a side street linking Willow and Sperry that once was home to brass mill workers. But now, about half of Sperry’s two dozen properties are litter-strewn, vacant or burned-out lots.

Only a few of the houses still standing are occupied. The rest of them are empty and boarded up, seized by the city or the banks for unpaid taxes or mortgage payments.

At Lawlor’s urging, the Waterbury Housing Authority is planning to demolish the homes and clear the lots and, in their place, build a series of two-story, Victorian-inspired duplexes.

The authority wants to buy the street itself from the city, repave it to add a slight curve and a garden planter in the middle, and gate it so only residents can enter — in hopes of stopping drug traffic.

The authority plans to rent or sell the houses to families earning less than $80,000 a year. Existing residents would have the right of first refusal, but Lawlor wants to recruit cops and teachers, too.

The WHA is already making it happen, buying some properties from owners outright and working with the city to seize other lots for blight or unpaid taxes, said Director Robert Cappelletti.

The Authority controls half of West Grove’s two dozen lots now, ranging from public housing it built in 1992 at the Sperry end of the street to a vacant lot it bought in February on the Willow end.

And, for the few properties that don’t fall neatly into one of those categories, the Authority is prepared to go to court, pay fair market value and take the properties through eminent domain.

Under such a scenario, the Authority would pay relocation costs for any tenants living in the seized properties, Cappelletti said. They would also get first shot at buying or leasing one of the new units.

Cappelletti is planning to break ground on the first phase of the project — a four-unit duplex on the northwest corner of Willow and West Grove — as early as this summer.

In the middle of the street, on the south side, the Authority wants to build a dual-level senior housing complex, with condos facing West Grove and apartments facing south, looking out over French Street.

Unlike the housing acquisitions, most of which have been done cheaply, the senior housing complex will cost “real money,” which is requiring the agency to apply for housing tax credits.

If its application for tax credits is approved, Cappelletti said, the Authority could break ground on the residential part of its proposed elderly housing complex as early as next summer.

The Authority would like to include space on the ground level of the west-facing half of the complex for commercial use, but that will depend on the interest of the project’s investors, he said.

The Authority is funding its upfront costs, including acquisitions, design work, and legal fees, out of a $500,000 construction fund it hadn’t touched since 1980, Lawlor said.

The decades-old fund was discovered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during an audit of the agency’s finances shortly after it was labeled “troubled” in 2012.

Earlier this year, the Authority was able to shed that label, after it enacted a series of federally approved reforms, turned its money situation around and improved its public housing score.

In 2012, the Authority learned that it had earned a 59 out of 100 on its annual HUD public housing report card, or a failing grade, for problems like having a high vacancy rate.

But now, after streamlining its repairs and placement practices, the agency has reduced its public housing vacancy rate, earning an 88 out of 100 on its last HUD report card.

When first labeled troubled, the agency was losing $220,000 a year, Lawlor said. Now it is projected to finish its fiscal year with an estimated $60,000 surplus.

In Lawlor’s mind, the Authority had cleaned its own house, and was now ready to tackle the city’s housing problems. It seemed like West Grove Street had plenty of opportunity to improve.

It is a neighborhood he knows well. His grandfather lived about one block away, and used to deliver milk, butter and ice to many of the homes he will soon demolish.

“I’m disappointed to see how far it has fallen,” Lawlor said on a recent visit to West Grove. “As a child, I was here a lot, and believe me, it wasn’t like this. It needs a fresh start.”

As he sidestepped broken beer bottles, chairs and drug paraphernalia on one of the vacant city-owned lots, Lawlor talked about how his father, a well-known local dentist, grew up in this area.

“It’s no place for kids now,” Lawlor said. “But it can be. It will be.”