In Hartford, a model for sustainable housing

At the corner of Asylum and High streets, on the western edge of downtown Hartford, an 83-year-old building was rescued, renovated and filled with tenants. Now, some say, it represents Hartford's most promising way forward in sustainable housing.

This is the Hollander Building. Reopened in 2009 as mixed income housing, it faced being turned into a parking lot before non-profit and historical preservationists advocated successfully for its survival. Now, two and a half years later, its 70 apartments are full, and it's financially self-sufficient.


The Hollander

"It's a model for what ought to be done in all of Hartford," said David Fink, policy and communications director for the Partnership for Strong Communities. "A mixed income configuration where people earning a fair income are living with people with low and moderate incomes--and it works out."

The Hollander's units include studios, one and two-bedroom units. Fourteen of the two-bedrooms are market rate apartments, with rents ranging from $1500 to $1600 a month. The remaining 56 are tax credit units--meaning they're available at a lower, fixed price and only to people earning less than 60 percent of the area's median income. They go for, at most, $900 a month.

"This is the start of a new generation of building projects," said Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions and founder of the non-profit Common Ground--two organizations responsible for the project. "The Hollander represents a number of firsts for the city."

The building, perhaps best known as the former home of the city's Steinway piano store, was purchased by the Hollander family in the 1990s as part of a development project. Their plans to demolish it for parking were thwarted by the city and preservationists.

"That opened the door to the Hollander family ultimately donating the building to us as affordable housing," Haggerty said.

This type of mixed income housing hadn't been attempted in Hartford in more than 25 years, she said.

Haggerty and Common Ground leveraged a number of different funding sources for the project. Subsidies totaling $26 million came from low income housing tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and the City of Hartford. After 18 months of renovation, the building opened to its first tenants. LEED certified, it boasts Hartford's first green roof, along with underground parking

"It was a complicated process, but great to see all these pieces come together," Haggerty said.

So what's gone in to making The Hollander a success? "Those of us who do this sort of work are not surprised," said Fink. For one, the mixed income aspect of the building makes it a more sustainable endeavor than many low-income housing projects. Tenants paying market rates subsidize the lower rents, allowing the building to be financially sustainable.

"The mistake we made post World War II is that we made 100 percent of the units affordable for low income people--so the developments lacked that income stream," he said.

Then there's The Hollander's proximity to transit lines: bus and train, each within a few blocks of the building.

"An average household in the U.S. spends 32 percent of its budget on housing. The next 19 percent is on transport," said Fink. "But if you live in a transport rich area like The Hollander, it's only 9 percent of your budget."

The frees up a good chunk of a household budget for other uses. So it makes economic sense to place low and moderate income housing near transit lines, Fink said. He called it a boon for employers willing to locate near rail lines: skilled workers able to move up and down the line with ease and efficiency.

And a project like The Hollander requires hands-on management -- in this case provided by Sharon Gower of Community Solutions, the building's manager.

"We work with people probably more than most landlords," Gowen said. "But there's really no big secret to this. If you make something clean and safe and responsive to the needs of the community, people will want to live there."

Gowen, who's been with Community Solutions from its inception, said that creating a safe environment starts with the tenants. Each applicant is carefully screened for eligibility using background checks and credit reports. They also meet with a staff member in person.

"Everyone is interviewed," said Gowen. "That's our first line of defense."

Then there's the security. The Hollander is locked, and all guests and visitors must be buzzed into the building's front door on Asylum Street by an employee or tenant. A security guard keeps watch overnight, when all visitors are required to sign in, say who they're visiting and provide ID. And security cameras are placed in and outside of the building.

"We've had no problems with either violence or break-ins since we opened," Gowen confirmed.

What they've also done well, Fink said, is take care of a well-restored building. "It looks as good today as it did when they opened a few years ago. They pay attention to the way the building looks."

And while there are rules to follow -- no smoking, regular apartment inspections, tenants aren't expected to be perfect.

"You get a second chance on certain things," she said. "When necessary, we offer payment plans for rent, and we really try to avoid taking people to court for any reason. And actually, we've been very successful."

hollander fitzpatrick

Hollander tenant Tom Fitzpatrick: 'This is the best move I could have made'

Tom Fitzpatrick retired from the Marine Corps and worked in insurance in Hartford for thirty years. At 76, he now lives in one of The Hollander's two-bedroom tax credit units, at a reduced rent.

"This is the best move I could have made," said Fitzpatrick, who for years shared a house with six roommates in East Hartford before moving into The Hollander three months after it opened. Fitzpatrick said he appreciates the building's amenities and it's proximity to Bushnell Park.

"I like to walk around downtown, and I'm already right here," he said. "And if I want to hop on a bus to Boston or Hartford, it's no problem."

Fitzpatrick said he appreciates the diversity of the building, and knows most of his neighbors. "They're careful about who they let in," he said. "But they also take good care of their tenants, and the building."

A need for housing

A report published by the Partnership for Strong Communities finds that in 2010 in Connecticut, the state's "housing wage," or the salary needed to afford rent for an average two-bedroom apartment, was sixth highest in the U.S. That housing wage is marked at $23.37 per hour, while only about half of the state's occupations offer that level of compensation. The Hollander's tenants are a mix of income levels and occupational fields. Amongst others there are two childcare providers along with six disabled vets, a hair stylist, non-profit workers, students and transportation employees. Some are in market-rate apartments, most in tax credit units.

"These people are doing jobs that make other people's lives easier," said Gowen, who knows her tenants (and many of their dogs) by name. "They can't all afford to pay high market rates for a prime apartment downtown. But our philosophy is that everyone should have access to these kinds of homes."

As for the market rate tenants? "They were attracted by the location, and the building, really."

With affordable housing needs at an all time high -- the wait for Low Income Public Housing Programs in Hartford is more than a year, and longer in New Haven -- projects like The Hollander can provide much needed spaces for low income families and individuals.

Proponents of mixed income housing say there are many more opportunities to replicate this project in Hartford. The Hollander family recently gifted the other building across the street at 370 Asylum to Community Solutions. "We're looking to prevent homelessness with these kinds of projects," Haggarty said. "And we're excited to build on our presence in that part of the city."