WNPR

New Haven Partnership Takes On Affordable Housing, One New Home At A Time

Sep 11, 2017

A recent study called “Out Of Reach” finds that someone working full-time, earning the federal minimum wage, would be unable to rent a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in this country. But a new partnership in New Haven is trying to address the problem, one house at a time.

A group of students at Yale University has teamed up with a local homeless shelter to build 10 affordable housing units in the next five years.

From her apartment on Eddy Street in New Haven, Ronye Precet-Little has been watching the construction for months, waiting on the house next door to materialize.

She said she’s excited, but has some advice for the designers.

“As for women, we like to take baths,” she said. “So they should have bathtubs…. Sometimes we like to soak.”

Precet-Little lives in the building next door to the construction. Before that, she was homeless for 15 years.

She said her new apartment changed her family’s life.

“I’ll be a grandmother within the next three weeks,” Precet-Little said. “Me and my daughter didn’t have good living situations, and I said, just don’t have no kids until I’m stable. We have to break this mold that me and her went through. And she knows my grandson is going to be safe while she’s at work.”

Once the house next door is finished, two previously homeless families will move in -- permanently.

This project is a collaboration between Columbus House, a local shelter, and the Yale School of Architecture. Columbus House has yet to identify who will take the units.

Credit David Bruce / WNPR

As I walked next door to check it out, I heard someone shout, “Nobody hit the reporter on the head!”

It was Yale Architecture professor Adam Hopfner yelling to 14 of his students, milling around the site. It seemed a little like herding cats. He’s leading the collaboration with Columbus House.

Kerry Garikes, a first-year architecture student, knows her way around a construction site.

“Right now, we're standing in the efficiency unit,” she said. “It's going to have two large bay windows.”

So far, only the framing is up, so when Garikes gave me a tour, we had to use our imaginations.

“Both the master bed and kids bedroom have these bay windows that you can lay down in, and we pictured the kid with their book reading and looking out,” she said.

With the help of Hopfner, the Yale students designed and built the space. They also met with residents of Columbus House, like neighbor Precet-Little, to learn what kinds of things might matter to someone transitioning to permanent housing.

And that transition can be hard, said Paulette DeMayo, a case worker for Columbus House.

“When someone hasn’t been housed for so long, they don’t know the basic things about living independently,” DeMayo said.

DeMayo had one client who was so uncomfortable in her new apartment that she refused to sleep in it for months. Other clients need help with things like budgeting or understanding how a lease works.

But she said that even with those difficulties, housing the homeless is the necessary step to help them rebuild a life.

“I know from an outsider’s perspective, they might, say, go get a job, or go do this, but when you don't get that much sleep, you don't eat what you're supposed to be eating, you don't have a stable safe place to even go to make a gameplan, it makes it very difficult,” she said.

Study after study has found that permanent housing is the most cost-effective way to address the problem. According to data on endhomelessness.org, by providing housing, Denver saved an average of $16,000 a person every year. Massachusetts saved $12,000.

The cost to build each New Haven home will be about $200,000. Every month, one third of the family income will go towards rent. The rest will be covered by Columbus House.

Professor Adam Hopfner said that he hopes that by the end of five years, they’ll have trained Columbus House residents to help with construction.

“It becomes not only a way to provide housing, but it actually provides a skillset that allows for economic sustainability,” Hopfner said.

I asked him how that might compare to training Yale students, many of whom have never worked construction before.

“No offense to Yale students, but my guess is that the folks from Columbus House might have a little more experience as to which end of the tool to hold or what have you,” he said. “It's an adventure -- a great adventure working with the students. But it can be challenging. Let's leave it at that.”

Next door, neighbor Precet-Little said she knows just how much of a difference a house can make. She remembers the first night she spent in her own home.

“I slept like a baby,” she said. “It was serenity.”

This is the first year of the Yale/Columbus House project. It’s a five-year collaboration, with plans to build just as many houses.