Published in The Day

By Brian Hallenbeck

New London ― Seven nonprofit agencies have announced that they’ve formed a partnership to tackle the region’s affordable housing crisis, and have hired attorney Beth Sabilia, a Waterford selectwoman and former New London mayor, to lead the effort.

The Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut will officially launch March 16, Maryam Elahi, president and chief executive officer of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, said.

The new center’s efforts will be modeled after similar centers that have had success in other parts of the state, Elahi said. Its service area will encompass 42 towns in New London, Windham and part of Tolland counties.

Sabilia, who will assume the center’s directorship March 27, said that before then she will leave her solo law practice in New London, the Sabilia Law Firm, and resign her seat on the Waterford Board of Selectmen.

“I’ve been at the foundation for 10 years, and in the last four or five years, we’ve been talking about system-change philanthropy ― doing more advocacy, bringing in nonprofits,” Elahi said in a phone interview. “We asked ourselves, ‘What if we set up a center completely focused on one of the biggest problems in eastern Connecticut, if not the state and the country ― affordable housing?’”

The Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut brought together the center’s other founding partners: Connecticut College, Eastern Connecticut State University, The Housing Collective, Partnership for Strong Communities, Regional Planning Association and United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.

“Simply put, we are stronger together,” Elahi said in a statement. “Together, we intend to lean into the significant housing challenges facing thousands of households in our region and to work in collaboration with those communities most impacted by these challenges to identify solutions and recalibrate our housing system so that it works for everyone in our region.”

Elahi started a conversation with The Housing Collective, a Bridgeport-based nonprofit that has helped address housing problems in western Connecticut, and reached out to potential partners closer to home. Connecticut College’s president, Katherine Bergeron, was the first to commit $15,000 to the new center, a sum Elahi’s foundation matched. Banks throughout the region came through with various amounts.

“Pretty quickly, we had adequate funding for the position (of center director),” Elahi said. A search committee interviewed a number of candidates before settling on Sabilia.

“She’s the perfect person for the job,” Elahi said. “She checked every box. She has an extensive background in this area, she has experience in government and law, and as a former municipal leader, she knows how to approach municipal leaders.”

Sabilia, 53, said the job posting sat on her desk for weeks before she decided to apply.

“It’s a significant transition, from law to this enormous undertaking that could change people’s lives in the region,” she said. “That’s the reason I volunteer in politics, to make people’s lives better.”

A Waterford native, Sabilia earned her undergraduate degree at UMass Boston and her law degree at Suffolk University Law School in Boston. While living in New London for 13 years, she served on the City Council, including as mayor. Since moving back to Waterford 13 years ago, she’s served on the Board of Finance, the Representative Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen.

A former chairwoman of the Waterford Democratic Town Committee, she gained a seat on the Board of Selectmen in 2019 despite losing the race for first selectman to Republican Rob Brule.

She has practiced real estate law most of her career, dealing with land-use issues and property sales.

“I’ve had clients that live in mansions and others that have no home at all,” she said. “I’ve represented people with housing issues that were the result of family breakups, foreclosures, landlord issues and evictions. Think of any housing issue and it’s more than likely I’ve represented someone affected by it.”

Elahi said the new center may occupy office space in downtown New London, while the staff of the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut will serve as the center’s staff, at least initially. She said interns from Connecticut College and Eastern Connecticut State University also will work for the center.

The Housing Collective and the Regional Plan Association, which has dealt with housing issues and economic growth in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area, have collected extensive data the new center will be able to access, according to Elahi.

“We will be pulling some (data) together in a format that can be presented to the community when we launch on March 16,” she said. “The collective has a sense of what works and what doesn’t work. We will have two centers to look to, in Fairfield and Litchfield counties. We don’t need to invent the wheel. … Everything we do will be data driven.”

She acknowledged that prevailing attitudes about affordable housing pose challenges.

“Some of our communities have resisted affordable housing,” she said. “We have to change that. The people who serve our communities, who serve the elderly, who work in our stores and teach in our schools need to be able to live in our communities. We’ll all do much better if they do. …”

Elahi said that according to the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments, one out of four households in eastern Connecticut is struggling to make rent or mortgage payments.

Funding for the Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut comes from Berkshire Bank Foundation, Centreville Bank Charitable Foundation, Chelsea Groton Foundation, Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, Connecticut College, The Connecticut Project, Dime Bank Foundation, The Housing Collective, Liberty Bank Foundation, Melville Charitable Trust, Ossen Fund for Windham, United Way of Southeastern Connecticut and William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund.