Updated, 8:04 a.m., Copy edits
NORWALK, Conn. – Phase one of the Washington Village replacement project was officially completed Wednesday with a ribbon cutting ceremony and celebration.
“This is a benchmark now of what can happen,” Mayor Harry Rilling said in a newly completed apartment building, across the street from what is left of the oldest public housing facility in the state. “People who say government doesn’t work, take a look at what this is. People who say Connecticut is on the decline or that Norwalk is not a good, desirable place to live, take a look at what we have.”
Video by Harold Cobin at end of story
Visiting dignitaries as well as Norwalk volunteers who had worked to replace Washington Village packed the Soundview Landings community area, along with a few transplanted Washington Village residents who confessed to struggling with the appliances in their new homes. Outside, workers were putting the finishing touches on the newly-paved Day Street, just a short distance from the unobtrusively raised intersection of Day and Raymond Streets and adjacent to Ryan Park, now grassed over. The park now has a raised walkway which was required to provide pedestrians a way out in the event of a flood.
The Norwalk Housing Authority’s effort to replace its 136 public housing units at Washington Village was supported by a $30 million U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant, awarded in 2014. Norwalk Housing Authority Board Chairman Cesar Ramirez said that 39 families have moved into the new complex; a few remain in the old buildings, as demolition begins, and all will be invited to move into the completed project, he said.
The CNI grant application was a “wacky idea,” U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Greenwich) said. Getting the grant “was not easy and every elected official, at state, federal and municipal level worked very hard.”
“One of the very first things our consultants said to the Housing Authority was, ‘just so you know, you’ll never get this,’” NHA Executive Director Adam Bovilsky said. It’s rare for a Housing Authority to get a grant like that, especially a relatively small Housing Authority, he noted.
CNI is more than a housing program, it aims to lift entire areas, and for “every $1 of choice neighborhood funds that is spent, about $7 of private investment is generated in the neighborhood,” HUD CNI Coordinator Luci Ann Blackburn said.
Gov. Dannel Malloy used the occasion, part of his “final tour” around the state as governor, to tout his accomplishments.
“We have funded $1.5 billion of housing, matched by $2.5 billion of other entities money,” Malloy said. He added that 25,000 units of housing have been created in Connecticut during his eight years, 22,000 of which were designated as affordable.
That’s more housing than was created in the terms of the 3.5 governors who preceded him, he said.
“Housing is fundamental to who we are and what we are, and quite frankly how we raise our children,” Malloy said. “Connecticut had lost its way in housing for a long period of time. We had been a leader in housing and then suddenly we stopped as a state. So bad that we didn’t even have a freestanding housing initiative or department.”
“I am a governor who built affordable housing in Darien. Think about it. And New Canaan,” Malloy said. “… I truly believe that every community should be able to house some number of people who they call upon for service in their community. We need a broader brush of affordable housing throughout our state.”
Washington Village suffered flooding as a result of Superstorm Sandy in 2012, and the “complex” financial package for re-building included funds inspired by the storm, Malloy said. Because the complex is in a flood plain, the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) required Norwalk to raise the intersection of Day and Raymond Streets to provide “dry egress” for residents, through Ryan Park.
The Norwalk Department of Public Works decided to take on the raising of the intersection itself rather than outsource the job, Rilling said. “We brought it in at $3 million under the estimate that we were given. Government works. Our city works. Our state works.”
Leadership from the Mayor’s Office helped the Housing Authority work its way through the “incredible bureaucracy” involved in getting local approvals, Bovilsky said.
“We will remember you as one of the main leaders,” Ramirez said to Rilling. He added that Soundview Landings will be part of Rilling’s legacy.
The new complex is a “small version of inclusionary Zoning,” State Rep. Bruce Morris (D-140) said. The mix of residents, with one-third market rate, one-third affordable and one-third public housing would help reduce the achievement gap, Morris said.
“This is such a boon to the City of Norwalk, it is exciting,” Morris said. He added that he didn’t recognize the neighborhood when he drove up.
“Phase One included the construction of 80 mixed-income rental residences made up of 40 replacement public housing units, 18 affordable tax credit units and 22 market rate units on two vacant parcels of land at 13 and 20 Day Street in South Norwalk,” a press release said. “Phase Two will consist of the construction of a single building on the existing Washington Village site with 85 mixed-income rental residences made up of 42 replacement public housing units 23 affordable tax credit units and 20 market rate units.”
While the CNI grant was important, the “lion’s share” of the funding comes from the state, from the Bonding Commission and through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, both 9 percent and 4 percent credits, Bovilsky said as he introduced Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) Executive Director Karl Kilduff.
“We have a series of homes here, homes that are an opportunity for the residents and a launch pad for future success,” Kilduff said. “It’s a neighborhood of opportunity by design to purposely create a better environment for this part of Norwalk.”
The tax credit applications were creative, compelling and creative, and phase two is unique, “allowing us to merge the two types of federal low income housing credits, to make phase two a reality and be the first in the state to employ that type of financing,” Kilduff said.
Phase two was awarded $1,868,562 million in tax credits in March.
Bovilsky wrapped up the ceremony by thanking the “tireless” Norwalk Housing Authority Board members.
“This is just the beginning folks, we have completed phase one, we are in the process to start phase two and phase three will be completed,” Ramirez said. “You can be assured and guaranteed that those 136 residents and the people depending on them, they will be back. We have 39 residents in beautiful and unique phase I and for those that have emigrated to somewhere else, they will be asked to please return to such a beautiful and grateful city…. We really say sorry for the time being to those few folks that still remain in Washington Village but we can assure you will be granted such a beautiful and unique, inspired new home.”
Disclosure: the writer lives in affordable housing.