A New Development for Aging Public Housing in Hartford

Jul 15, 2013

It's been more than a half century since the state built two big public housing developments in Hartford -- nestled in neighborhoods that now include middle-class housing, the University of Hartford, and expensive single family homes. The housing developments are called Westbrook Village and Bowles Park. Over time, the units have grown too old and expensive to repair.

So the Hartford Housing Authority wants to knock them down and build something else. The project, with more than 130 acres, represent a huge opportunity for the city and its stakeholders.

Dwayne Patterson walks me through his two-bedroom apartment at Bowles Park. And it's pretty nice. "This is the living room right here. I've got my corner for when I work at home..." But his last apartment? It had issues. "The rain was leaking through the exterior wall into the bathroom. So redevelopment is a needed thing here at Bowles Park. A lot of the buildings are in disrepair. You have either roofs leaking, piping that is old and rusted out in the walls..."

The Hartford Housing Authority owns the two sites and it decided a few years ago that the roughly 70 buildings with more than 700 units of public housing were beyond repair. By design, only about a third of the units are occupied now. The rest are boarded up and, as the authority says, off-line. They couldn't in good conscience rent them out.

Why did it get so bad? Unlike most public housing -- which was paid for and later subsidized by the federal government -- Bowles Park and Westbrook Village were financed by the state. That means that while the state paid for construction, it didn't provide money on an annual basis for upkeep. That was supposed to be covered by rents. But, over time, the rents just couldn't keep up.

Patterson has lived at Bowles Park for three years with his family. He works as an IT contractor, but the work isn't always regular. And his partner stays home with their nine-month old. He says it's time to remake the buildings in these two neighborhoods. Because there is real demand for affordable housing. "I know at least four families right now that I can tell you that would be happy to be able to live in a situation like this. Where right now they might be shacked up with a relative or there's other situations where there's mothers that are out there in shelters where, if affordable housing was available, they might be able to give their child a better experience in life. Period."

Bowles Park and Westbrook Village are in the very northwest corner of Hartford -- near West Hartford and Bloomfield. The housing authority has tried before to remake these two sprawling properties, but failed. Now, they've given developers until July 8 to brainstorm and come back with their best ideas. "We're looking for respondents to be creative." That's Annette Sanderson. She's the authority's executive director. And as we drove around the project site, she wants developers to think big. That means housing. That could mean retail, too. And, unlike when the state built the two developments, this time, the projects have to make financial sense. "We're asking for them to look at the current market conditions and be creative and to suggest for us, recommend to us as to what they think would be appropriate for these two developments."

Walter Harrison is the president of the University of Hartford. Bowles Park and Westbrook Village are the university's neighbors. He says he has no plans for the university to invest in these projects. But he's watching them closely. "A university flourishes when the neighborhoods around it flourish and a university suffers when the neighborhoods around it suffer. So we have a vested interest in the improvement of these neighborhoods." One thing he'd like to see is affordable housing for graduate students. He'd also like to see some sort of commercial development, particularly at Westbrook Village. Because there's no restaurant in walking distance to the campus. There's no pharmacy or coffee shop, either. Whatever comes, he agrees with the housing authority -- the buildings that are there now have to go. "They've outlived their normal lifespan. It's great that we're doing it now. I hope we grab hold of this opportunity and really make something of it."

Dwayne Patterson, who lives at Bowles Park, has some specific ideas of what he'd like to see, too. He wants the housing authority to replace each and every housing unit its taking down. Because a lot of people in the city need a safe, affordable place to call home. But while Patterson says he's got big hopes for Bowles Park, he also has big hopes for himself. "Eventually, I want homeownership. Not necessarily that this is a bad neighborhood, but I want to move and escalate into a situation where I can have my own yard for my daughter. I can set up a playscape. I want to have a cookout, I can set up the grill and barbeque some ribs and eventually have the American Dream." Until that happens, he'll be here at Bowles Park -- waiting for whatever comes next.