Paul C. at an encampment off Ella Grasso Boulevard, where a growing number of New Haveners are staying. Nora Grace-Flood / New Haven Independent

New Haven alders voted to spend $4.8 million in federal money on affordable apartments and shelter space for the homeless — while inviting advocates to help oversee the plan’s rollout.

Local legislators took that vote Tuesday night during the latest full Board of Alders meeting, which was held in person in the Aldermanic Chamber on the second floor of City Hall.

The alders voted unanimously in favor of submitting an application aligned with those anticipated expenditures to secure $4.85 million assigned to New Haven through the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Tuesday’s vote marked a compromise of sorts following a committee-hearing debate among city officials, nonprofit providers who serve unhoused people, and individuals experiencing homelessness themselves about how to best utilize a limited pot of money to address the housing crisis.

During the public input session of that Feb. 15 aldermanic committee meeting, the city pressed the importance of investing in the development of ​“deeply affordable housing,” leaders of New Haven’s drop-in and overnight shelters pushed for spending on emergency shelter beds, and many more individuals experiencing housing instability themselves testified in favor of sanctioned space for encampments, public restrooms and permanent showers.

Following that debate, Downtown/Yale Alder Alex Guzhnay came forward Tuesday night with an amendment to the city’s original spending outline. 

The Elicker Administration had proposed putting $4 million towards development of ​“deeply affordable housing”; just over $500,000 toward ​“supportive services,” such as childcare, job training or legal services; and $350,000 toward the administrative costs of implementing the funding.

Guzhnay suggested on Tuesday moving $1 million away from development of below Area Median Income (AMI) rental units and using that money to create more non-congregate emergency shelter. That latter term refers to living spaces featuring individualized rooms for residents, such as motels or hotels, to provide a level of privacy. The need for non-congregate shelter spaces grew in particular during the pandemic as a means of halting the spread of Covid-19. 

Guzhnay also introduced the idea of establishing an advisory committee made up of one representative of the city’s Community Services Administration, one representative of the Greater New Haven Regional Alliance to End Homelessness, and one representative of the Unhoused Activists Community Team to help advise the city on how to implement the nearly $5 million housing plan.

“This will provide more places for those who are struggling with housing stability to have a warm and private place to stay,” Downtown/East Rock Alder Eli Sabin said in support of Guzhnay’s amendment. Sabin pointed to the closure of Immanuel Baptist Church’s Emergency Shelter Management Services, and the subsequent loss of 100 beds for those without housing, as reason to pour money into non-congregate shelter space.

Westville Alder Darryl Brackeen also spoke out in favor of the amendment. He described February’s debate as a ​“display of what democracy truly looks like,” and said that it drove the alders to pose a substantial set of questions to city staff that were answered before the alders opted to amend the now-approved spending plan.

Alders voted on Tuesday to adopt Guzhnay’s amendment before voting to approve the grant application and spending plan in full.

The majority of the questions sent by alders to city staff in advance of Tuesday’s vote focused on ascertaining what $4 million in affordable housing would mean in practice, according to an email obtained by the Independent. 

For example, Fair Haven Alder Sarah Miller inquired as to how many units could be made available, at what price and where in the city.

“There are no plans or projects developed at this moment,” Director of Community Resilience Carlos Sosa-Lombardo replied via email. ​“This allocation plan needs to be approved by the federal government before we can move on to the next phase of the project… Funding will mainly be used to develop deeply affordable housing as a permanent solution. The administration will strive to secure additional services dollars to also create some permanent supportive housing as a solution for the chronically homeless.”

Sosa-Lombardo said that the city was pushing to pay for housing construction because state funding was already available to support non-congregate shelters and ​“we did not want to duplicate efforts.” He also noted that the Elicker Administration has already applied for a state grant to build public bathrooms on the Green.

Remaining questions from alders asked city staff to explain why homelessness remains such an outstanding issue within New Haven. ​“The rise in visible homelessness directly results from a lack of deeply affordable housing options,” Sosa-Lombardo wrote. 

Read more here and here about competing perspectives from members of the Unhoused Activist Community Team, who have argued that $4 million, now reduced to $3 million, is not enough money to build a meaningful number of apartments for an increasing population of unhoused individuals — and that shelters do not meet the needs of many of those living on the streets in lieu of accessible apartments.

This story was first published March 8, 2023 by New Haven Independent.