Public housing residents nervously await next storm — with good reason

Norwalk — Paula Sanchez estimates that when Hurricane Sandy was at its fiercest, the water in her first-floor apartment went as high as 3 1/2 feet.

It was the worst flooding she’d ever experienced. But it wasn’t the only flooding.

“I have floods all the time,” Sanchez said, sitting on her living room couch. “I had one recently, a few days ago.”

Sanchez lives on the corner of Raymond and Water streets in South Norwalk, in a public housing complex called Washington Village. Water Street is aptly named. Located just a few hundred feet west of Norwalk Harbor’s mouth, it routinely floods during most high tides and big rainstorms. The water gushes into Sanchez’s front yard and sometimes gets right up to her front door.

A few days ago, the flooding was so bad Sanchez was unable to get into her car and missed a doctor’s appointment. Gesturing out to her front lawn, she pointed to her potted plants, now mostly soil: “You can see my plants outside. They’re gone.”

Water Street floods so often that the city doesn’t even keep records of how often police close the street, said Norwalk Housing Authority deputy director Candace Mayer.

Washington Village during Sandy

This is what Washington Village in Norwalk looked like as Hurricane Sandy approached. The water rose higher after residents left.

The area presents one of the Norwalk’s biggest challenges as the city works to fortify itself against future storms. Built by the federal government in the early 1940s, Washington Village is the oldest public housing complex in the state. The complex, and the area surrounding it, are some of the most vulnerable structures on Connecticut’s coastline.

In the long term, the housing authority wants to raze and rebuild Washington Village. Short-term, says Mayer, there’s little anyone can do to protect the complex, short of shutting power off and evacuating residents in case of a threat.

“It’s not a safe place to have housing,” she said. “For anyone.”

Big plans, no money

Plans to overhaul Washington Village have been a long time coming for these residents. Ray Dunlap, president of the residents’ association, has spent weeks in meetings and site visits with the housing authority over the past several months.

“The people here really need it. I think it’ll be good for the community,” said Dunlap. The current plan would rebuild Washington Village as a mixed-income housing development. Nearby land acquisitions, along with townhouse-style buildings, would allow the number of units to increase from 136 to 273. Some of the additional apartments would be rented at market rates, and others would go for what the state deems affordable under affordable housing law.

“Life will be much more robust and full of opportunities for the residents of Washington Village,” Mayer said.

Blueprints show colorful, townhouse-style buildings built above the floodplain, with bigger apartments and more services. They’re a far cry from the current drab, brownish-red brick buildings in the complex.

But for now, they’re just blueprints. The housing authority is banking on a $30 million federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to help finance the $100 million project. HUD only gives out five such grants each year nationwide — and with all the uncertainly in Congress, it’s not even clear the agency will have the money to offer any this year.

Mayer said the developer chosen for the project, Trinity Financial, has said it will move forward with some kind of plan even if the HUD money never materializes. Still, the plans would have to be scaled back.

“It’s the most deflating thing for anyone,” said Tim Sheehan, director of Norwalk’s redevelopment agency. “If you’re a private homeowner, and you’re thinking about [advancing] construction of a new house, and ultimately the financing doesn’t come through, that’s disappointing. It’s going to be the same thing for these folks that have participated in planning what their future residences could look like.”


Norwalk housing sketch

A sketch of what Norwalk’s Washington Village might look like if it is rebuilt on higher ground.

Even in the short-term, the housing authority is strapped for cash just to try to be a little more prepared for the next storm. The agency just acquired five generators from the fire department to use in places like Washington Village — but now it needs $20,000 to complete the power hook-ups. Mayer said she’s not sure the money, which would come from an annual allocation from HUD, will be available in time for next hurricane season.

“Hopefully we get the funding in July. But we can’t spend anything before we get it,” Mayer said. Flood insurance costs are rising, too. Their policies cover most of the $1.5 million in damage that her agency will incur because of Sandy, but premiums for Washington Village and another smaller complex on the floodplain have risen by 8 percent since 2009. The housing authority paid $40,000 for flood insurance last year.

Even when the generators are put in place, they’re only available for use in the “community rooms” of the complexes — small common recreational areas for all the residents. In Washington Village, that room is just as subject to flooding as all the other buildings.

Asked if anything could be done to better prepare Washington Village and the surrounding area for a future storm in the short-term, Sheehan had trouble finding answers.

“Um…I think some of the drainage issues could be looked at,” he said, after a long pause. He was referring to Water Street’s clogged drains, which residents of Washington Village have been complaining about routinely for years.

Other than that, Sheehan said, “There shouldn’t be any expectation that if a street or a development is in a 100-year floodplain, and it’s at grade with the floodplain, that it’s not going to flood.”

Risk across the state

Washington Village is just one of many public housing complexes on the waterfront in coastal Connecticut.

In Bridgeport, buildings in a complex called Marina Village that flooded during Sandy and Irene are being renovated with few changes. Mayor Bill Finch said Marina Village and several other complexes — including P.T. Barnum Apartments, with more than 1,000 people — are in floodplains and need to be rebuilt.

“We would rebuild them higher, and make them more resilient from the storms,” he said. But, he added, that’s not a project the city can finance — and ultimately, the federal government built the units, so it should be responsible.

“The federal government needs to come forward with rebuilding these housing projects, especially the ones that are in flood-prone areas,” Finch said.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development couldn’t provide a list of public housing complexes that are located in floodplains. But Commissioner Catherine Smith said the agency is in the process of evaluating buildings that are vulnerable to future storms.

During Superstorm Sandy, she recalled, “We started getting independent phone calls…from different housing operations all over the state, saying ‘Oh my gosh, we don’t have a generator and we really need one.”

“It triggered in us an idea that we needed to go out and just check on everybody,” Smith said.

That evaluation will be included in a 10-year plan to use the $300 million Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently made available to the state for affordable housing, according to officials.

There’s one snag in the use of those funds, however. State statute generally doesn’t allow state dollars to be used for building in floodplains. That’s why the Norwalk Housing Authority hasn’t been able to use money from the state, rather than the federal government, to rebuild Washington Village.

The Department of Economic and Community Development could apply for a waiver to that rule in certain cases, but Sheehan said it was unlikely.

“I’m not aware of such a request being made previously for a project in Connecticut,” said Sheehan, adding that he brought it up with the DECD before, to no avail.

Such a request from the DECD is indeed rare. But in fact, the agency has made one request recently to spend state money in a floodplain. It’s for up to $115 million that Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s richest hedge funds, will receive in order to build a $750 million office complex on Stamford’s waterfront.