Going under

A little boy and girl, clad in summer garb, stood on their front porch and blew streams of bubbles that wafted over passersby. Grills were ablaze in backyards and music pumped from driveways as men nursed beers and tended the meats. On every street, families sat together on porches in the late afternoon summer sunlight. Fair Haven does not feel like the heart of a citywide foreclosure crisis.

But it is. “It’s falling apart,” said Maurice, 20, a Fair Haven resident who asked that his last name not be used. “It looks like the whole street is abandoned houses.”

Connecticut has the highest foreclosure rate in the northeastern United States, and New Haven property owners are facing the largest number of foreclosures in Connecticut.

Through the first two quarters of 2012, the number of foreclosure filings in New Haven reached 474, up from 231 over the same period in 2011, and more than double the number of filings at this time last year. That’s more than double the number of foreclosures in Stamford, a nearby city with roughly the same population. In New Haven, there have been 36 foreclosure filings for every 10,000 residents; in Greenwich, only 45 miles away, that number is one.

Fair Haven alone accounted for 40 of the 209 foreclosure filings in New Haven in the first quarter of 2012, despite the fact that it houses only about a tenth of the city’s population. Many blocks of Fair Haven, though, are vibrant and bustling, with some even showing signs of growth. In many ways, then, the crisis is a hidden one.

The construction of 19 new housing units is underway on Wolcott Ave., as part of the Fair Haven Scattered Sites Project. The 13 million dollar project is receiving funding from several sources, including Connecticut’s Department of Economic and Community Development and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. A total of 44 housing units will be built or rehabilitated in Fair Haven once the project is finished—which was originally slated to happen last spring.

Fair Haven is a place of contrasts, stark and clear. BMWs sit parked before white picket fences a few yards from desolate properties that have been abandoned for years. Across from the new development, at 187 Wolcott St., there stands a decrepit home with boarded doors and windows, the white paint slowly fading away. The backyard is a jungle of unencumbered plant life and trash: a broken baby carriage, discarded shirts and jeans, empty bottles, plastic bags, torn paper, empty dog-food cans, and a much-weathered game of Yahtzee.

Behind all this stands the overgrown frame of a garage. From the doorframe hangs torn fabric, like a battle-beaten flag. A tray of deli meats, visited only by flies, has been left in the driveway. A pair of blue jeans dangles from an un-boarded second-story window, as though to dry.

I returned to the lot 24 hours later. The deli meats had all been eaten, the jeans no longer hung from the window, and the back door, once padlocked, was ajar.

When night falls, as the owner-occupied homes that breathe life into the neighborhood go dark, new life awakens in the abandoned homes. Drug addicts and the homeless take refuge in the boarded-up houses, which are also used by prostitutes.

“Crime, social disorder, and population turnover are common in areas of mass foreclosure,” reported the Real Options, Overcoming Foreclosure project (ROOF), started by New Haven Mayor John DeStefano in 2008.

As far as some residents are concerned, though, these nightly denizens are of little import. For Maurice, the “bums and drug addicts” are not a pressing issue. “They just want somewhere to sleep,” he said. “They’re not a threat to anyone.”

For New Haven, the foreclosure crisis is a threat.

“The foreclosure crisis affects everyone living in New Haven,” commented Ward 1 Alderwoman Sarah Eidelson, JE ’12. “It is both a cause and an effect of the economic inequalities that our community faces.”

The national foreclosure crisis that triggered the recession in 2008 persists here in the Elm City even as much of the nation slowly climbs from recession. Many New Haven homeowners, forced by unemployment and under-employment to exhaust their savings, now face the frightening prospect of foreclosure.

Aside from providing grounds for illicit activities, abandoned homes blight entire neighborhoods in a ripple effect.  Coupled with the loss of security that comes with increased crime, the scattered emergence of boarded-up homes can drive down property values for an entire block. Falling property values can, in turn, force other homeowners into foreclosure when the house becomes worth less than the value of the loan.

In New Haven, though, the problems are deeper.

“The current crisis in New Haven is as much due to structural issues in how the housing is managed and occupied,” said architecture professor Elihu Rubin, SY ’99, who teaches  “New Haven and the American City.” “Many of the homes are already abandoned and owned by ‘absentee landlords’ who not only fail to manage or maintain the properties, but also evade payments.”

The foreclosures, then, “are symptomatic of larger problems in the ownership and maintenance of housing in the city, and not simply the failure of a few people to make their mortgage payments,” Rubin continued.

The jump in foreclosures this year can also be traced to a more aggressive policy pursued by the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA). The Greater New Haven WPCA, over which the city has limited control, collects payments from property owners for the disposal of waste water.
When unpaid fees reach 1,000 dollars, the WPCA begins foreclosure procedures against the property owner. These practices have drawn anger from many city residents and political leaders.

New Haven’s leaders approach the problem of foreclosures and abandoned homes with a limited tool set. The city’s anti-blight agency, the Livable City Initiative, has undertaken work to rehabilitate neighborhoods, one house at a time. Developers have been brought into homes in the Hill, the New Haven neighborhood home to Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Yale School of Medicine. The hope is that these developers will compete for the right to repair the homes, which the city can then sell.

In recent months, ROOF, the New Haven-based project that works to assist home owners facing foreclosure, has ramped up its efforts to reach more residents and now serves 15 towns in south central Connecticut. The organization also compiles important foreclosure data, and works to “prevent or mitigate the effects of foreclosures on families and communities” in the area.

The city government points to its strategic plans for a Jobs Pipeline Program as critical to stemming the crisis. The Board of Aldermen approved the program in a unanimous vote on Tuesday. The plan calls for the creation of an agency called New Haven Works, which will connect residents with jobs through its partnerships with employers.

“Unemployment has been the major cause of foreclosures over the past few years, and the towns around New Haven have felt the effects, as well,” said Carla Weil, Executive Director of the Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund. Unemployment in New Haven currently stands at 13.6 percent.

“I am very hopeful that the Jobs Pipeline will connect hundreds, if not thousands, of residents to good jobs and career paths, which could make all the difference in New Haven residents being able to pay taxes and keep their homes,” Eidelson said.

Eidelson also said that Yale has committed to be a partner of the program. President Richard C. Levin has long made it known that improving relations between Yale and New Haven was a top priority for him. “The boundaries between the university and the city should be soft ones. No hard edges,” Levin said in an interview with the New Haven Register on Thurs. Aug. 30.

Regardless of the city’s ability to bring in more jobs and potentially stem the foreclosure crisis, many feel that the effects of the crisis have already sunk deep.

“I see a lot more anxiety,” said Reverend Sandra Olsen, 62, who has led the First Church of Christ in New Haven since 2005. “Anxiety, when it goes on, turns into cynicism and bitterness.”

As much despondence as it breeds in the neighborhoods, the foreclosure crisis is unlikely to touch Yale students where they live.

“College life at Yale is pretty well insulated from New Haven and its very real day-to-day problems,” Rubin said.

For Yale students, the foreclosure crisis and its related problems can feel abstract and foreign. No boarded up houses line the walk from Davenport to Sterling.

“Foreclosures can be a difficult thing for students to comprehend,” said Jacob Sandry, BR ’15. “It’s tough to understand that someone a few blocks away is losing their home they’ve lived in for a decade. It’s much easier to focus on a p-set.”

Sandry, though, was wary to simply analyze the data and prescribe solutions. “We need to begin by being citizens of our city and getting to know the people that those numbers represent.”

“I think it’s easy to see how Yale students wouldn’t notice the foreclosure crisis,” commented Alan Sage, SM ’14. “On campus we hear about foreclosures and violence in very abstract terms, but in reality the Elm City is an incredibly dynamic and fascinating environment.”

Through his organization on campus, Middleman, Sage is seeking to create the relationships that will enable Yalies to engage in the dynamics of their city. In many ways, the community service that so many Yale students perform does not establish much of a relationship with the city.

“There should be a relationship beyond service as well,” Sage said. “Through my work, I’ve been lucky enough to meet residents who’ve taken me around the city and showed me their neighborhoods, both the good and the bad.”

Even among the abandoned homes and rising foreclosures, the citizens of Fair Haven remain resilient.

On a late summer afternoon, Julio, a young man who lives with his parents in Fair Haven and asked that his last name be withheld, sat on the front porch of the family’s Exchange Street home. Down the street foreclosure proceedings have recently begun on a home, and two houses across the street are abandoned. Another has recently been restored.

But Julio merely shrugged at talk of rising crime and falling property values. The properties across the way mark the exception to him, not the trend.

“The rest of the street, I mean,” he said, waving a hand in an arc tracing his block, “everybody’s living here.”

Residents are not eager to give up on their neighborhoods. For Julio and others throughout the city, home is still home.

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