A completed NINA project on Ashley Street that is one of the oldest structures still standing in this section of Asylum Hill. Photo courtesy of NINA.

By Erika Frank
Senior Community Impact Officer
Hartford Foundation for Public Giving

The negative effects of growing up in areas of concentrated poverty are widely known, ranging from disparate health outcomes to reduced lifetime earnings. In Connecticut, it is overwhelmingly Black and Latinx residents that experience these disadvantages. While policymakers must make changes to our State’s zoning laws to help deconcentrate poverty in cities, we simultaneously must examine strategies to improve stability and opportunity in Hartford and other urban areas. We should adopt revitalization strategies that provide Black and Latinx residents meaningful ownership opportunities so that they can be the benefactors of neighborhood growth and vitality.

Not everyone wants to move to the suburbs. Hartford homeowner Erin Fletcher shared her motivation for buying a home in Hartford. “I had been renting in the Asylum Hill neighborhood for some time. I enjoyed how close I was to downtown, and how easy my commute to my job was.  But, most important, I wanted a close-knit community that I found in Asylum Hill. When I was ready to buy a home, I wanted to stay right here in Asylum Hill.”

Erin’s home was previously a blighted property that had been renovated and sold by the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA) as an owner-occupied opportunity for a low- to moderate-income household.  NINA is a nonprofit developer seeking to address blight and create affordable homeownership opportunities in Asylum Hill.  

A completed NINA project at “The Castle” on Sargent Street. Photo courtesy of NINA.

Homeownership is one way that families like Erin’s can build generational wealth. However, Hartford’s weak housing market and history of disinvestment limits homeowners’ ability to invest in necessary improvements, as the cost of those improvements frequently exceeds what can be supported by the home’s value. Given this reality, it is understandable that some homeowners hesitate to invest in home improvements, further depressing property values and perpetuating a vicious cycle.  The City’s ongoing struggles with blight and a stagnant housing market are major issues that require targeted intervention and investment to reverse.  

Ken Johnson, executive director of NINA, has been working to change this dynamic in Asylum Hill for more than 15 years.  “When I began at NINA, there were 49 abandoned buildings in a square mile, and, unfortunately, blight begets blight,” explains Johnson. “But when we started restoring the 19th century Victorian homes we have here in Asylum Hill, the reverse began to take place. Our restored homes created pride of place, generating renewed interest and investment. This multiplied the positive impact by increasing the value of other homes in the area, enabling families to build equity and achieve the American dream that most of us take for granted.”  

NINA is one of several nonprofit developers throughout Hartford providing quality, affordable rental and homeownership opportunities and addressing blight. For more than 20 years, the Hartford Foundation has helped spearhead the Hartford Neighborhood Development Support Collaborative, a funders collaborative convened by LISC Connecticut that provides operating support and capacity building to strengthen Hartford’s nonprofit development sector, including NINA. 

New NINA townhomes at 86-88 Hawthorn Street. Photo courtesy of NINA.

While supporting a strong ecosystem of nonprofit and for-profit developers is critical, it is not the only intervention necessary to spur revitalization. In 2019, the Hartford Foundation joined the City of Hartford and the new Hartford Land Bank to commission a blight survey and market analysis. The data will serve as the basis for many stakeholders to build sound strategies that harness market forces, including the Land Bank itself. The Land Bank is a new mechanism for acquiring and rehabilitating vacant and distressed properties. The City and the Foundation are collaborating on additional efforts this summer to address blight and beautify neighborhoods through the multi-faceted Love Hartford initiative.

With strategies and tools backed by national best practice and local data, as well as targeted co-investment from our public, private, and philanthropic institutions, we can break the cycle of disinvestment in our urban neighborhoods. The Foundation has recently funded the Partnership for Strong Communities to research effective public policy to this end. The pandemic has reinforced the need for all of us to live in safe, stable homes, in safe, stable neighborhoods. Join the Hartford Foundation as we work to ensure that all Connecticut families have access to quality, affordable housing in growing, higher opportunity neighborhoods.