Published in The Day
By The Day Editorial Board
The 64-unit complex of apartments “affordable to many” on Bayonet Street in New London broke ground only Oct. 11, but construction on the first phase is well underway.
That is encouraging. ECHO — the nonprofit Eastern Connecticut Housing Opportunities, Inc. — is wasting no time getting started on housing that is sorely needed and long awaited.
Located across from the entrance to Shop Rite and the New London Mall, on a SEAT bus route, the 433 Bayonet St. apartments are well situated for tenants who, by choice or need, will want access to shopping and transportation without getting into a car.
A good location is said to be a primary tenet of the real estate business, but past evidence has shown that often does not apply to housing that includes options for people of lower-than-average income. As a mixed-income complex, the first building of two will have one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, nine of which will be leased at market rate rents. The rest will be rented at rates based on income; six will be reserved for individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism.
ECHO’s CEO and president, Julie Savin, told the group assembled for the groundbreaking that the goal is “housing that is affordable to many,” as distinct from the loaded term “affordable housing.”
ECHO will be able to stand by that distinction as something more than wordplay if the finished complex feels like a desirable place to live for people who have choices of where they go. Bus and shopping access will help make it so, and could bring New London a step closer to being an urban center that features mass transit. Not everyone wants to own a car, even if they have the option.
The $11.7 million building is due for completion in September 2023; the second is planned to include 36 units, starting in 2024. They will help meet the urgent need that Connecticut has for housing, using both public and private funding.
State Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno said at the groundbreaking the state has 7,500 housing units in different stages of construction, amounting to about $600 million in state resources and leveraging $3.3 billion in private investors. ECHO’s project will use more than $4 million in low-income tax credits and $1.6 million from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Trust Fund program — the first to do so in New London.
In the drawn-out process of getting permits, approvals and funding, especially for a project that includes public funds, the simple, human reason for going to all this effort can be obscured. Let us not forget how universal is the need for a sense of home.
Housing is the means; a home is the goal. The ECHO complex and others like it that combine public support with incentives such as tax credits for private investment, are meant to avoid some of the pitfalls of public, low-income housing projects. Those amounted to segregation, often being erected in the least desirable places and, once built, avoided by people who did not have to live in them.
The Day’s year-long Housing Solutions Lab continues to focus on the many tentacles of the shortage. Among them are the high cost of buying, which has increased the pool of potential renters and the cost of renting; competition for existing housing, including the arrival of thousands of workers newly hired by Electric Boat; pandemic-related evictions that displaced households; and the effects of inflation both on renters’ ability to pay and landlords’ costs for paying their properties’ mortgages.
Some municipalities, such as New London, and both lenders and nonprofit agencies are, however, strengthening awareness and action plans for increasing housing access. The Hartford Courant reported that the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving will give a second round of funding to nonprofits that advocate for policy change that affects structural racism in state and municipal affordable housing laws. And here, the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, Connecticut College, Eastern Connecticut State University and other partners are opening a Center for Housing Equity & Opportunities in Eastern CT (CHEO), to begin a coordinated, regional response to address housing affordability, starting in 2023.