Courtesy of Shelley Buchbinder

I moved back to Willimantic in 2021 after 15+ years in New York City and New Jersey — to find my hometown ranked by the CT Department of Economic and Community Development as the most distressed place in Connecticut in 2023.

Willimantic’s distress is part of the perennial problems of “poverty, low growth, vacancy, and aging” in older industrial cities. These conditions persistently puzzle local officials, chambers of commerce, and urban planners. Universities have been heralded as wonderful tools for economic (re)development, buzzed as part of an Eds and Meds strategy after widespread disinvestment and economic decline in cities across the US, with manufacturing contracting, closing, and relocating.

Willimantic, in the town of Windham, has Meds through Windham Community Memorial Hospital and Eds with Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) in its Victorian Hill section. The University of Connecticut is 10 minutes up Route 195.

A blessing for economic redevelopment? Perhaps not. 

In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower, Trinity College Professor Davarian Baldwin challenges the Eds-centric economic engine narrative. Baldwin posits that universities cast shadows on the cities they inhabit as large landlords that don’t pay local taxes. Their expansions can raise housing costs and displace low-income residents, disproportionately “working-class people of color.” Students become desirable renters over low-income families as many people pay rent on the same property and have access to student loans, money as dependents, or guarantors of rent.

In New York City and New Jersey, I’d lived in the shadows of Columbia and Rutgers Universities, with many off-campus students struggling over rising housing costs, a telltale impact of gentrification. Columbia University’s West Harlem expansion was a case in point being linked to resident displacement.

I saw this in Willimantic as a CT State Community College professor at the Quinebaug Valley campus in Danielson and Willimantic. Many of my students shared experiences and struggles to find housing and stay housed. These experiences track with Windham County’s low-income rental housing shortage. On daily dog walks and runs around town, I saw homeless encampments off the Willimantic River downtown. This summer, I saw people’s tents cleared and posted “no camping” signs as ECSU students returned.

A Windham No Freeze Program representative shared with me that most of the unhoused people in encampments were known to the No Freeze Program and had Section 8 vouchers and no apartments willing to rent to them. Voucher discrimination is common and visible with rental postings saying, “no vouchers.”

Blanket voucher rejections are illegal in Connecticut. Rental discrimination is common, and vouchers are concentrated in high-poverty, high-rental markets like Willimantic. These rejections are matched by rental posts citing proximity to ECSU and UConn or even being student-specific housing, like Willimantic Rentals claims of “matching students with houses.”  Their site has been inactive since Fall 2022.

Some houses are being rented to students and flipped. Visible in my neighborhood is 167 Summit Street, a 4-bedroom Victorian built in 1895, blocks from ECSU. It was purchased in 2018 for $150,000, posted for rent in 2019 for $1,900 a month (down from the original $2,495 price), and listed for sale in 2023 for $250,000 (from Zillow). The listed 2019 rental prices are above the 2021 Fair Market Rents of $1,695 for a 4-bedroom apartment in Windham County.

In a low-income housing shortage, how are inflated rents heralded as Eds progress in the most distressed place in Connecticut? Local officials and landlords are pushed to desire students who can pay more as part of the city as growth machine logic requires higher rent and property values to raise tax revenue, leaving out low-income renters. Willimantic is not alone in these dynamics. I saw it with Rutgers in New Brunswick and Columbia in Harlem, New York City.

The scale in Willimantic is different. ESCU students and UConn students outnumber Willimantic residents, so these changes have an outsized impact on the housing market.

When will local colleges and universities reckon with their imprint on cities and change policies and funding? Yale has begun to pay voluntary taxes to New Haven as a step.

In the name of social justice, let’s heed Davarian Baldwin’s critique of universities’ local impact and advocate for a fairer local calculus for towns and cities with colleges and universities.

Shelley Buchbinder lives in Willimantic.