In order to avoid a court battle the city was very likely to lose, the Ansonia Board of Aldermen voted unanimously May 13 to settle a federal fair housing complaint regarding the Riverside Apartments, a federally-subsidized housing complex on Olson Drive.
The decision to sign a “conciliation agreement” means that when the Olson Drive property is redeveloped, 48 affordable housing units will be in the mix.
The agreement officially kills a plan to purchase Olson Drive and turn it into “open space,” an idea former Mayor James Della Volpe launched leading up to the November 2013 municipal election.
In fact, the agreement states the city must repeal $330,000 in borrowing voters approved last November to purchase land on Olson Drive.
Mayor David Cassetti said that when he came into office, he thought Della Volpe’s open space plan made sense. The goal was to reduce density in a crowded neighborhood.
But the open space plan had no basis in reality, Cassetti said.
“They were blowing smoke,” Cassetti said.
The land along Olson Drive is controlled by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The Ansonia Housing Authority signed an agreement in 2012 promising to provide 48 HUD affordable housing units in order to get permission to continue tearing down the dilapidated Riverside apartments.
“HUD would have shut us down,” Cassetti said, if Ansonia moved forward with the prior administration’s open space plan.
The agreement also holds Ansonia’s feet to the fire in terms of supporting affordable housing on Olson Drive.
In addition to repealing the public vote, the city must:
- Create a building committee to oversee the redevelopment of affordable housing on the site.
- Call on Cassetti to offer public support for affordable housing on Olson Drive, and pursue funding to make it happen.
- Report any roadblocks in the redevelopment to HUD.
- Send the feds reports updating them on redevelopment efforts every 120 days.
The Aldermen approved the “conciliation agreement” about two weeks before a public forum Cassetti has scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, May 29 at Ansonia High School.
At that forum, Cassetti is scheduled to announce a large-scale redevelopment project for Olson Drive.
The specific details of the plan haven’t been announced, but the Valley Indy has learned the new Olson Drive could include a new Ansonia Police Department, a new fire department building, in addition to a a mix of affordable and market-rate housing.
The Riverside Apartments are across the Naugatuck River from downtown Ansonia. It was built in 1962 and was initially 11 buildings.
The property represents HUD’s old ways of providing subsidized housing — a big cluster of poverty in a poorly-designed complex that became conducive to crime.
By the year 2000, if a serious crime happened in Ansonia, there was a 50 percent chance it happened within the Riverside Apartments.
The crime rate there was brought down significantly over the next decade. Click here for a previous story.
Meanwhile, the aging, stigmatized complex fell into disrepair.
The city, as part of a lengthy bureaucratic dance with the feds, began tearing the buildings down in September 2009.
In 2012, the Ansonia Housing Authority signed an agreement with HUD promising to demolish several apartment buildings on the side closest to Pershing Drive, and to redevelop the site with at least 48 low-income units.
A second tear-down phase started in October 2013. A chain-link fence now surrounds the site.
There are still buildings occupied in the Riverside buildings closest to the Maple Street Bridge.
Residents of the razed buildings were relocated to other federally-subsidized apartments, and promised that they’d be allowed to move back once the buildings were demolished and new units were built — per the city’s agreement with HUD.
But in the run-up to last year’s municipal elections, then-Mayor James Della Volpe and announced he had a new vision for the site — open space, or, tearing the buildings down and leaving the site vacant.
That kicked off a confusing few months, during which Ansonia city officials said HUD was warming up to the open space plan, while HUD officials kept insisting that Ansonia live up to its 2012 agreement to build affordable housing.
Della Volpe lost his re-election bid in November 2013 at the same time as Ansonia voters approved borrowing $330,000 to purchase the land on Olson Drive.
Wait A Minute
But by that point the city’s open space plan was already beginning to unravel. The week before the election Malika Mosley, the former president of the Riverside Tenants Association, filed a complaint with HUD saying the city had broken its promise to allow people who lived at Riverside to move back.
The Cassetti administration began a new round of talks with HUD, while also dealing with Mosley’s fair housing complaint.
That’s when Cassetti and John Marini, the city’s corporation counsel, realized they were fighting a losing battle on Olson Drive, and putting the city at risk of a federal lawsuit. The city and the housing authority had promised, publicly and repeatedly, to provide affordable housing on Olson Drive.
They drew parallels to the City of Derby’s defeat in a years-long court battle that resulted in a $2.8 million decision against the city for discriminating against an affordable housing development.
Ansonia has previously been in hot water with the feds regarding allegations of discriminatory behavior.
The city was ordered to pay a developer’s legal fees in 2009.
In 2012, the United States Attorney’s office signed off on a settlement agreement with Ansonia that removed outdated, discriminatory language from the city’s zoning regulations.
Mosley was represented in her housing complaint by Shelley White, the litigation director at the New Haven Legal Assistance Association.
White said the settlement approved by the Aldermen just forces the city to make good on what it already promised.
“It puts some teeth into the original agreement between HUD and the housing authority that was back in 2012, “ White said. “They agreed that they were going to redevelop the property with at least 48 units (of affordable housing), and all the tenants would have a right of return if they wanted to avail themselves of that right.”
“We’re pleased with (the settlement),” she said. “It’s two years later than we had wanted it to be, but I do that think that with the passage of time and with the change of administrations, there is more acceptance of both the need to redevelop and that it can be done in a manner that will provide both quality housing to the area and will not repeat the problems of traditional public housing, back when it was first created.”
Mosley’s complaint, and the strategy of the prior administration, “seemed to be pushing us closer and closer to very expensive litigation on an issue that we were likely to lose on,” Marini said.
What’s Next For Olson Drive?
Cassetti has scheduled a public forum for May 29 at 6 p.m. in Ansonia High School to unveil his “vision” for the future of Olson Drive.
City officials won’t say much about the redevelopment plan, saying they want to wait until May 29.
But the agreement approved by the Aldermen, coupled with meeting minutes from the Ansonia Housing Authority, indicate the city wants to see Olson Drive redeveloped into a mix of uses, including:
- Market rate housing
- Affordable housing
- Community space
- Office space
- Public safety facility (police department, and a new fire department building)
More details on the proposed redevelopment of Olson Drive should be revealed at the mayor’s forum.
The city still needs HUD approval to demolish and redevelop still-occupied apartments north of High Street. Cassetti’s May 29 announcement will presumably include more details on that aspect.
“Hopefully the new development will look very different and function very differently and be something that the city and the housing authority can be proud of,” White said.