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Housing on a hill

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I could hardly believe I was in the middle of one of New Haven’s largest low-income housing projects the first time I went to Quinnipiac Terrace. Conditioned to expect the lifeless brick blocks that characterize most public housing complexes in the United States, I didn’t think it possible that this charming neighborhood, with rows of little houses each painted a different pastel, could be government-owned property.

Located on a hill looking down on the Quinnipiac River, the project—known to its inhabitants as Q Terrace, or simply QT— sits on prime riverfront property. Nestled behind the rows of muted houses lies the Clinton Avenue School, a former bank that was converted into a remarkable colossus of glass, steel, and stone so that the children living in the project would have a place to learn in their backyard.

But Q Terrace didn’t always look like the picturesque waterside neighborhood that it does today. Ten years ago, the site, known at the time as The Island, looked exactly like the cinder blocks that the phrase “public housing” evokes, and it faced all of the same issues that so persistently plague them. Rife with drug-dealing, gang violence, prostitution, and miserable living conditions, the old Q Terrace looked exactly like the other projects of the era.

By the end of the urban crime wave of the nineties, city officials everywhere were beginning to question the prevailing system of public housing, in which billions of dollars were being spent on the same hopeless designs that consistently and repeatedly failed to provide safe and adequate living conditions. But it was in New Haven—starting with the Monterey Place housing project and closely followed by Q Terrace—that the federal government finally provided the money to experiment with a radical new housing system.

Characterized by private development and management, a homeownership component, strict lease enforcement, density reduction, and a progressive design, the renovation of Q Terrace was meant to serve as one of the trials for potential future reconstructions throughout the country. Despite certain disadvantages that the new site faces, due both to the trial-and- error nature of such a novel project and the constant room for improvement, the project is largely considered an undeniable success. A triumph for those who had been calling for change in public housing design for decades, Q Terrace opened the doors for similar redevelopments in New Haven and in various other cities facing the almost identical problems associated with stereotypical twentieth century public housing.

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One hundred years ago during the Progressive Era, municipal governments around the United States began to build large apartment complexes that would be rented to residents with incomes below a certain level. These public housing projects became the centerpieces of urban renewal projects—after tearing down neighborhoods with predominantly low-income residents in order to build highways or parks, cities would proudly laud their work as “slum clearance.” They would then build housing projects elsewhere, where the residents of the demolished neighborhood were relocated.

Usually built in otherwise undesirable locations, these complexes would quickly became isolated from the rest of the city, allowing for a climate in which crime thrived. Governments would throw billions of dollars into the same failing designs used again and again and then ignore the projects on completion, thinking their job was done and leaving the residents to the devices of an unsustainable urban ecosystem. These housing projects became notorious across the country for their violence and poor living standards from New York’s Morningside Heights to Los Angeles’s Jordan Downs.

It took many years for both local and federal housing authorities to admit that the conventional wisdom employed in building public housing was fatally flawed, and still today it is rare to find a project as radically progressive as the new Q Terrace. But there were many who had been calling for change for decades. In 1961, Jane Jacobs, a leading expert of urban studies, wrote the incredibly influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which took city governments to task for their failed efforts at urban renewal. She wrote, “There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend, we could wipe out all our slums in ten years…But look what we have built with the first several billion dollars: low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace.”

For many years, decades even, municipal governments failed to heed Jacobs’s warnings, until the the living conditions in most public housing developments became so severe that they could no longer be ignored.

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First built in1941, Quinnipiac Terrace originally had 244 units. Located on a strip of land jutting out into the river, the community was effectively isolated from the rest of the Fair Haven neighborhood. In an interview, former Mayor of New Haven John DeStefano said, “The old Q Terrace was a classic garden-style housing development with all of the classic demographic characteristics of low employment, high poverty, single head of household, high violence, poor maintenance, poor physical condition. It experienced the kind of social isolation that occurs when you create functionally a ghetto—I mean, there was no wall, but it was clearly distinguished from everything around it.”

Built and then largely neglected, the environment in the neighborhood became very violent very quickly during the crime waves of the eighties and nineties. Lee Cruz, director of community outreach for the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, said, “Since the eighties, it had deteriorated significantly, and in the late eighties to early nineties, it got to be a pretty bad place with a lot of prostitution and drugs. There were a number of units that were condemned, so people were living right next to places where basically rats and roaches were just running wild because nobody lived there. It was a mess.”

There were many factors that contributed to this deterioration. New Haven was certainly not immune to the crack-cocaine epidemic that ripped through American cities during the time, and the proliferation of drug dealing and use in Q Terrace created a lucrative but violent arena for those seeking an alternative source of income.

But it was the design of Q Terrace that really facilitated the many factors that have the potential to infect any public housing project. The apartments sat in an enclosed space without any throughways that would have opened the area to external view and passage. Lieutenant Herb Johnson, the New Haven Police Department’s district manager for Fair Haven, started his career in the force as a walking patrolman in Q Terrace. “The design itself was an officer’s nightmare,” he said. “There wasn’t anyway for patrol cars to get in. You couldn’t drive through the complex, and to be honest I’m not going to send a walking beat in there because walking the beat alone is never good, no matter what city you’re in; you always need a partner.” As a result, the only way to get from one side of the complex to the other without going around was through these open-air hallways. Partially covered, dimly-lit, and tunnel-like, these hallways were used mostly as cover during drug deals and confrontations with the police.

Another aspect of the architectural design that contributed to the crime in the area was the flat roofs of the buildings. Residents would throw drugs and guns on top of the buildings when the police suddenly arrived or whenever they needed to quickly rid themselves of illegal materials.

The rows of houses sat on a diagonal line, which meant that the doors were not facing the streets and residents were consequently unable to see outside the complex. More important, however, was the scarcity of doors themselves. There were several large buildings—each with many small units inside—that only had a single communal entrance.

Still, the most critical design flaw was in the density of the project. The units were the minimum possible physical size, and the residents were living in such close proximity to one another that the living conditions resembled nineteenth century tenement-style housing more than anything else. Douglas MacDonald, the former assistant chief of police for New Haven, who served as district manager for Fair Haven during the nineties, argued that the density of the project significantly reduced the residents’ willingness to preserve it. “When you put people on top of each other you don’t give families a chance to expand or take pride in their home, and it leads to an increase in vandalism,” he said. “The housing authority really didn’t contribute to a feeling of ownership. There certainly was not a lot of forethought—it was like let’s put some bricks and mortar together because we need to put people somewhere. They also really lacked the knowledge of how to facilitate repairs.”

Johnson, who in his current position as district manager has championed a method of community policing that seeks to involve civilians as much as possible, noted that the relationship between the police and the residents of the old Q Terrace was much more strained. “I used to pull up on Downing street and everyone would be right at the edge of the parking lot,” he told me. “As soon as people saw the cop car they would all run away back into the units.”

In terms of direct danger, gun violence posed the most serious threat to residents. MacDonald described arriving at Q Terrace one night after reports of a gang-related shooting, at which point gang members who ran the project began firing at him and his fellow officers. The shootout that ensued left one person dead and three wounded.

Stories like that were commonplace. Of course, any city will experience some gun-related crimes during the course of a year, but the prospect of violence posed a constant threat to the neighborhood’s residents. Shirley West served as the Alderwoman for Ward 12, which includes both Q Terrace and another neighborhood across the Quinnipiac River, from 1999 to 2008. She described a similar experience as one of the main motivating factors in her campaign to improve quality of life in Q Terrace. “I was out canvassing one evening, and I didn’t realize that they were gunshots at the time, but someone started to shoot, and the person that I was with kept telling me that we had to go. I wanted to keep knocking on doors, but he got me into the car and told me that those were gunshots and that they were pretty close. Shortly after that, we found out that somebody was shot right behind the street where we were. That experience made me determined to focus on what could be done there.”

Despite her best efforts, it was not until 2003 that West and her colleagues finally got the opportunity to effect the change Q Terrace so desperately needed.

***

Under the Bush administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development initiated a program called HOPE VI, which sought to revitalize public housing projects by demolishing old designs and building radically new ones.

In 2003, the Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH) was awarded 20 million dollars as a HOPE VI grant. Together with 37.5 million dollars in low-income housing tax credits through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and 4 million dollars for environmental cleanup of the site from the State of Connecticut, 2.9 million dollars from HANH, and 5.6 million dollars from the City of New Haven, this grant provided Q Terrace with enough funds for a complete reconstruction.

The city appointed a committee to ascertain the needs of the new development that was composed of members from all sides of the issue—the housing authority, the city, the community, and the existing tenant council. The committee decided to outsource the development to Trinity Financial, a real estate development firm out of Boston. Trinity decided to build a series of units called Oyster Houses, a traditional architectural fixture of the New Haven area. The houses get their name from the oystermen who used to occupy them.

At the heart of the redevelopment was the employment of a new public housing methodology called New Urbanism. With a limit of 20 units per acre, a foundational aspect of this design strategy is density reduction. The new development reorientated the direction of the houses so that they were no longer diagonal but faced parallel to the streets. The basis of this decision was the “eyes on the street” axiom of New Urbanism. The theory holds that if residents can see the area around them, both the interior of the complex as well as the surrounding streets, exposure will go up and crime will go down. The design called for the construction of more streets running through the area so that it became more open and so that police would not encounter the same movement problems that Johnson described with the old development. The roofs of the houses were pointed instead of flat. At its most basic level, New Urbanism seeks to finally employ all of the hard-earned lessons of decades of failed public housing.

Jimmy Miller, deputy executive director of HANH, explained that the distinction between public and private space is key to the design methodology. “There is public space, private space, and semi-private space,” he told me. “In New Urbanism, you don’t want a lot of public space, because no one has ownership of it. We created as much private space as possible by giving everyone a front yard and a backyard. But that’s more costly. In the old days they built big buildings with a lot of units and a large public area in the middle because it was easier. They actually called the building requirements ‘minimum standard.’ We have very high standards about the materials we use so that they can withstand the wear and tear of housing large families.”

The HOPE VI grants carried with them a series of stipulations, the centerpiece of which was private development and management. In theory, the force of capitalism would drive private developers to produce better standards of living than a public entity. This proved to be largely true in the case of Q Terrace, but some residents maintain that their own interests have taken a backseat to the private management’s financial end goal. Melanie Post, program director for HANH, said, “Sometimes these third-parties are a little bit disconnected from the residents. At the end of the day, they want their money, and some of the residents feel that they’re talked down to when they deal with them.”

The new development has a total of 209 units, which constitutes a reduction of 35. Eight of these units were put up for sale instead of rental, satisfying the homeownership component of the HOPE VI grant, and those selected to partake in the program were required to enroll in homeownership classes. The design of the Oyster Houses—a raised basement originally used for storing the salted seafood that constituted the oystermen’s portion of the catch and two floors above ground level—allowed the new homeowners to live with their families in the top two floors and rent out the bottom, which gave them a steady tenant income.

Departing from the former socioeconomic policy of public housing that grouped families into different projects according to their income bracket, the new Q Terrace used income integration to diversify the neighborhood. “We tier the incomes now so that everyone isn’t at the bottom of the totem pole, because that isn’t sustainable long-term,” Miller said. “There is extremely low-income, which is zero to 30 percent of the median income, very low-income, which is 30 to 50, and low- income, which is 50 to 80, and we mix those up.”

A crucial component of managing the development is consistent tenant screening and strict lease enforcement. Those who violate the terms of their lease are not permitted to stay. “It’s all about consequences,” DeStefano told me. “If you have people living in the unit that aren’t on the lease—which will tend to be a boyfriend most likely—there’s an eviction. If you’re dealing drugs, there’s an eviction. And it’s prompt and certain. And that catches people’s attention—so this is the rule; I will live by the rule.” This policy has undoubtedly been effective in maintaining a certain standard of living in Q Terrace, but West voiced a concern that the stringency of the rule doesn’t allow for the flexibility of case-by-case management. “Part of the challenge is that you have to be consistent, but you can’t just take everybody’s situation to be the same,” he said.

Phase I of the redevelopment, which was completed in 2006, built an initial 97 units. Phase II added an additional 79 units in 2007, and the final Phase III consisted of 33 units by 2011. In staggering the construction, the developers were attempting to address the most common concern among residents: relocation. While the houses were being demolished and rebuilt, the tenants had to temporarily move elsewhere, uprooting their lives and their families. Several families ended up taking a relocation voucher called a Section 8, which gave them essentially a buyout to find permanent housing elsewhere and not return to Q Terrace upon completion of the renovation. One concern was that once these former tenants took their Section 8 and left, that the housing authority would lose track of them and they would face a greater likelihood of ending up in a place similar to the one they had just left. This same concern was expressed by some about density reduction in general—that it meant that there would be housing available for fewer families.

Cruz argued that this reduction is a necessary, if difficult, first step in making at least some lives significantly better: “We needed to declutter, which means that the first thing we had to do is realize that we can’t save everybody.” Given the history of public housing in the U.S. up until that point, it is not entirely surprising that many families were willing to take the vouchers and set off to fend for themselves. “A lot of people took the Section 8 because they saw it as an opportunity to leave the housing development,” West said. “I’m not sure if many of the people who left knew what the new project was going to look like.”

But others still argue that the density reduction did not result in the overall loss of housing availability. “I don’t know what happened in every instance to the people who were relocated,” DeStefano said. “I assume they found housing somewhere, because a Section 8 isn’t a bad thing to have. Of course that means you have to own a car, or it may mean that you move away from your church or your community such as it is, but there are some advantages. I never got a sense from the program that the relocations were hugely negative for people, but trust me, in urban renewal in the United States in the fifties and sixties they would have said the same thing. But I don’t think there’s been an overall reduction in affordable housing inventory generally in the city; I think they were able to maintain it.”

Miller, the HANH deputy director, maintained that the housing authority was in fact able to continue taking care of the families who chose the Section 8 option over returning to Q Terrace: “We may have lost track of people in the old days, but we don’t now, because we keep track of them perpetually. Our obligation is to make sure that they still have the same benefits that they would have if they were still there. We currently have over 5,000 units of public housing in the New Haven area, but we also wanted to deconcentrate poverty. We want those individuals to move to neighborhoods with less poverty, with better schools, better shopping options.”

Some New Haven residents, though, felt that it was precisely that deconcentration that posed a problem during relocations. Angelo Reyes, a local business owner in the Fair Haven area, said that some of the unwanted characteristics of the old Q Terrace got injected into other areas. “The renovation of Quinnipiac Terrace was a great project,” he said, “but one downside was that during the relocation process, a lot of the violence that was isolated in the project got moved into the surrounding neighborhoods, and they became less safe.”

When the redevelopment finally finished, however, and families were able to return to their new and improved homes, there was no question as to the success of the project.

***

From the moment it was built, the new Q Terrace offered residents a completely different living environment. All of the elements of the New Urbanist design combined with the simple satisfaction of having a nice, clean place to live immediately brightened the entire neighborhood, and crime rates plummeted.

Previously impotent in the area, HANH was now able to implement and run a series of programs to help residents become accustomed to maintaining a new standard of living. “The fundamental thing that happened in Quinnipiac Terrace was a change in the culture—it was a culture of fear and anger,” Cruz said. “When you are fearing for your life on a daily basis, it’s hard to take the housing authority seriously when they tell you how to live and what to do.”

The project was completed on time and under budget, and with 1.7 million dollars left over, HANH was able to open an escrow account to use the additional funds for an increased number of services for the residents. For any government project, the greatest difficulty always lies in finding the funding to maintain services after completion of construction. Miller noted that the redesign alone was not enough to ensure the wellbeing of residents, and that the housing authority was and remains committed to offering continued support: “Just because your house is facing the street and your unit is bigger doesn’t mean in and of itself that you’re not going to commit crimes. That’s why we offer all these other programs too. We don’t want to just do developments without doing supportive services.”

The bulk of these services comes in the form of classes. Teaching a wide range of topics, including nutrition, stress management, and parenting, the classes seek to make residents more independent. In her job as program director for HANH, Post collaborates with external third-parties to make offering these classes possible. “The housing authority has a family self sufficiency program,” she said. “The point is to help people go through the steps to become self-sufficient— get their GED, get a job—so as to maintain rent collection.”

In theory, the effort on the part of HANH to offer these services in perpetuity will avoid the pitfalls of neglect that so forcefully derailed past public housing developments.

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The real success of Q Terrace extends far beyond the borders of the neighborhood itself. The development was a coup for New Urbanism as a concept, and the lessons learned from the trial and error of this one project will hopefully lead to a continued discussion about the ever-changing needs of public housing residents. The more immediate impact is for the future of other housing developments in the New Haven area. HANH has embarked on the process of reconstructing all of its public housing projects, and currently next in line for its makeover is Farnam Court, which is also located in Fair Haven. Facing many of the same issues as Q Terrace, Farnam Court is sandwiched between a highway overpass, the river, and an alley. Johnson describes a series of stairwells in the complex that function in much the same way as the open-air hallways of the former Q Terrace. Slated to begin the Phase I relocation process this month, Farnam Court will go from its one site now to three different sites in the future—an effort to effect density reduction without decreasing overall housing stock, though potentially resulting in the dilution of a coherent community.

The main difference between the two projects is that HANH is attempting again to use a public developer and manager through a new entity called the Glendower Group, a development offshoot of the housing authority. This experiment will prove whether the new generation of housing officials can overcome the hazards that plagued their predecessors.

But either way, back in Q Terrace life is proceeding as normal. Kids play in the yards and in the summer families go outside and fire up their grills. At the end of the day, when the residents return from their jobs to their pastel Oyster Houses, they return to a home they can take pride in. It’s clear to me now why I didn’t realize I was in a low-income housing development the first time I went to Q Terrace— that’s exactly the point.