NORWALK, Conn. — Mayor Harry Rilling isn’t crazy about labeling South Norwalk a “slum.”
“I agree with Councilman (Richard) Bonenfant; this sends a very negative message,” Rilling said in an email. “South Norwalk is a historic area with many beautiful buildings. Unfortunately that is the designation necessary to receive federal funds. I am not comfortable with the designation but I understand the Planning Committee’s decision.”
The Common Council will vote Tuesday on designating South Norwalk as “slum, blighted, deteriorated or deteriorating” (slum/blighted), a designation of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While Rilling is not a fan, former Mayor Bill Collins said it’s part of the game.
“That’s one of the little bureaucratic things you have to put up with, I’m afraid, the definitional issues,” said Collins, SoNo Task Force chairman. “So you do what you have to do to meet their requirements and I suppose from an income standpoint it would qualify for that, although it doesn’t look blighted anymore.”
The issue was discussed at last week’s Planning Committee meeting.
Bonenfant (R-At Large) voted against it, the only nay vote. It wouldn’t help real estate agents, he said. Others agreed that the word “slum” was distasteful.
“It’s a balance with trying to, not ‘projecting the right image,’ but to meet the criteria to acquire the funding we are needing,” Planning Committee Chairman Doug Hempstead (R-At Large) said.
“I do believe we are marketing South Norwalk aggressively and doing everything possible to attract investors to the area,” Rilling wrote Monday. “One simply has to look at all the development taking place to realize SoNo is moving in the right direction.”
“The Realtors and the people who are inclined to buy in that part of town are not naïve,” Collins said. “They know what they’re getting into – you drive around and you see it. Most people with that turn of mind really like it and they have to decide if they want to pay as much as is being charged. But the fact that somewhere it says blight on the HUD application is not going to be consequential.”
Taking on a blight/slum designation opens up the door to eminent domain, NoN commenter Don’t Panic said.
“Eminent domain should be the choice of last resort,” Rilling said.
“We need eminent domain anyway,” Collins said. “Maybe not for anything in that project but we’re certainly going to need some in both SoNo and NoNo. I can’t imagine that admitting that it’s blighted would have anything to do with that. That would be an action of the Redevelopment Agency and the Council, I would think.”
NoNo is a Jackie Lightfield label for North Norwalk, Collins said. Great marketing idea, he said.
“If you wend your way down behind the railroad station it wouldn’t require Sherlock Holmes to find blight,” Collins said. “Little hard to find it on Washington Street anymore, so I have no idea what the definitional issues are on that, but if we have to say ‘OK we’re blighted’ in order to get the money, then who is going to oppose it?”
The designation qualifies an area for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding, HUD says on its website. It lists examples of qualifying activities:
- Rehabilitation of substandard housing located in a designated blighted area and where the housing is expected to be brought to standard condition;
- Infrastructure improvements in a deteriorated area;
- Economic development assistance in the form of a low-interest loan to a business as an inducement to locate a branch store in a redeveloping blighted area.
“The criterion used to determine a blighted/slum area are very basic and could apply to many other areas not just South Norwalk,” Rilling said. “The term slum is offensive and certainly does not describe South Norwalk.”