Heart and lung afflictions have Dave D’Amelio struggling to get around these days.

Climbing the hills at his public housing complex with his portable oxygen tank in tow often leaves him fighting to breathe. There’s no elevator, and the lift that gets him to his second-floor apartment occasionally breaks, so he carries his cell phone everywhere in case he gets stuck. When he needs to do laundry, he rolls his basket down the hill to where his car is parked and drives it to the building with the machines, rather than walk it up the hill to the next building over.

This 71-year old retired bartender worries about how he is going to navigate the complex and his tiny, 250-square foot efficiency apartment — with its steep doorway lip and a screen door that won’t stay open — if he eventually needs a wheelchair.

His complex is reserved for the elderly, though some residents joke that the original owner built the complex to have somewhere to put his mother, whom he didn’t like very much.

“I don’t know who built these buildings, but they weren’t built for seniors — everything is hills,” said D’Amelio. “Everywhere I go: hills.”

The complex has also aged poorly. Cracks line the cement pathways in some of the 46-year-old buildings. Algae adorns the gutters. The parking lot has loose gravel and potholes. Documentation of these problems — and many others — began surfacing 25 years ago and continues today.

“We kind of held the place together for a long time with duct tape and bubble gum,” said Doug Denes, who served on the board of the Branford Housing Authority for more than two decades, including as chairman, until 2019.

Attempts over the past nine years to raze and replace the three deteriorating buildings have all failed, however, because of local opposition to the housing authority’s plan to lift the age restriction for the complex. Instead of housing 39 older residents, the new complex would accommodate 126 people of all ages, including families.

Some residents and elected officials in Branford, an affluent shoreline town near New Haven, have reacted with hostility to the plan, saying it would spoil the character of the community and attract undesirable people.

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“The drug addicts are going to be here, believe me,” William Woermer, of Branford, testified before the board in November 2017. “Retirees, disabled, old people — I have no objection to renovate the whole place and make it nice for them. But don’t get too much of that riffraff in. There will be a lot of riffraff. … With a project like this, you need security guards in the area.”

Woermer was hardly alone in his opposition.

Town officials have spent years attempting to convince the courts to stop the project and have been ordered twice to allow it to be built, while a group of Republicans on the town council wrote the town’s zoning board in 2017 urging them to vote it down, saying they had “concerns about whether this expanded and new use is consistent with the neighborhood and character of this small part of Branford.”

This chorus of opposition against affordable housing that isn’t age-restricted raises a larger question for Branford and other affluent Connecticut towns: Is this discrimination?

Although the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits people with children from being discriminated against, there is an exemption that does allow housing to be built exclusively for the elderly. But for many civil rights attorneys and housing advocates, local support for elderly housing or one-bedroom apartments has become a strategy employed by affluent suburban towns to avoid erecting affordable housing options for families.

This tactic is on the radar of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last fall, the federal agency charged Arlington, Texas, with violating the Fair Housing Act after the city adopted a policy that only allows the construction of elderly affordable housing.

The number of successful complaints against communities discriminating against families has been limited, however.

“When people think about discrimination, they’re much more likely to be looking at the categories that have gotten more attention and has been more apparent in our social discourse: discrimination based on race and ethnicity,” said Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, a team of civil rights attorneys who focus on fair housing. “I’ve done lots of trainings on fair housing law, and people are often surprised that there’s even protection for families with children.”

Winning local approval for elderly housing is also often demonstrably easier than getting through projects without an age restriction.

“The reality is that the elderly have many more options to find housing than do people with children. … There’s a lot more [affordable housing] built for older people, and in a way it’s discriminatory because of who lives longer in this country,” said Denes, the former longtime chairman of the Branford Housing Authority.

In Connecticut, reserving affordable housing for the elderly does have the potential to disproportionately benefit white people, since 84% of those over age 65 are white, compared to 67% statewide.

Only 8% of Branford’s population is Black and Hispanic, compared to 27% statewide. Just one of the 37 residents who lived at the controversial elderly complex in Branford in 2020 was Black; the remaining residents were white.

The affordable housing built over the years in Branford with the help of state and federal funding is half as likely to be reserved for families than other projects across the state. These taxpayer-funded affordable housing projects, which are paid for with government grants or tax credits, account for the overwhelming majority of the affordable housing units in the state.

Of the 233 affordable housing projects built with taxpayer money in Branford, 25% are reserved for families, compared to 54% statewide. Likewise, 57% are reserved for the elderly in Branford, compared to 42% statewide. Branford also has 16% of its units set aside for the disabled, compared to 3% statewide. While the state Department of Housing collects this data, the agency warns that there may be some overlap in reporting if a unit is both age- and disability-restricted.

An analysis by the CT Mirror of affordable housing built with the government’s assistance shows that 16 higher-income towns have reserved 100% such housing for the elderly, another 39 have reserved at least 80%, and 25 towns have no government-assisted housing in their communities. Those 16 towns are Ashford, Chester, Columbia, Deep River, East Granby, East Hampton, Haddam, Madison, Morris, Pomfret, Sprague, South Windsor, Voluntown, Wilton, Woodbridge and Woodstock.

Translation: almost half of the towns in the state either have no affordable housing for families that was built with taxpayer money or have a strong preference against such housing. While these 79 towns are home to one-quarter of the state’s overall housing stock, only 9% of taxpayer-funded affordable housing units are located in them, and 10% of all types of affordable housing.

This lopsided approach towards elderly housing didn’t happen by coincidence. Local preference for elderly housing is showing up in zoning regulations, which ultimately determine what type of housing developers are allowed to build — and what types of people can live in those communities.

Only 13% of districts zoned for housing in Connecticut allow four or more unit developments to be built, and one out of every four of those districts require such housing be reserved exclusively for the elderly, according to research completed by Sara Bronin, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Law.

“The number of districts specifically devoted to elderly housing is significant,” said Bronin, who is also the founder of DesegregateCT, a coalition that lobbies for zoning reform at the state Capitol.

State intervention

State officials have noticed the preference in certain suburbs to allow housing for low-income seniors while blocking development of affordable housing for low-income families. In an effort to reverse this trend, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority under the previous administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy made the primary source of funding to build affordable housing essentially out of reach for developments that would be reserved for the elderly.

Each year, the state finance authority awards tax credits worth roughly $120 million, accompanied by $30 million in other state aid, to build affordable housing. To determine which of the many projects seeking aid to fund, the state devised a grading system that aligns with its development priorities. That grading system was overhauled in 2016, putting 9% of the points out of reach if the applicant’s project would only house the elderly or if more than 50% of the units are single bedroom or efficiency units.

“There were housing authorities in the state that wanted to build senior, age-restricted housing, and they would come in to meet with us, and I’d say, ‘Well sure, you could apply — but you won’t be able to compete.’ And they were disappointed,” said Evonne M. Klein, who served as housing commissioner and chairman of the CHFA board for most of Malloy’s tenure. “More of our developments need to look like our neighborhoods with all ages, all sizes of families, so that was our way to address the fair housing issue. … You know a property doesn’t have to be age restricted to have seniors living in it.”

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas :: CtMirror.org

Ron Burton Coleman, an 84-year-old resident who has lived at Parkside for 15 years, opens the free food he received on the floor of his small 250-square-foot efficiency apartment. His kitchen won’t fit a table and his scooter that he requires to get around. “This place has definitely deteriorated a bit. It’s a little bit rundown. The new one-bedroom facilities that are supposedly coming out are going to be wonderful — if I live long enough, I’ll be happy to see it,” he said.

The Lamont administration has kept intact the grading system that incentives family developments.

“The Department of Housing recognizes that there is a growing need for family housing,” said Masouda Omar, CHFA’s managing director of multifamily development.

This fall, the state announced it would fund $20.4 million of the $26.2 million project in Branford.

Prioritizing family housing when awarding construction dollars for affordable housing has annoyed some Branford officials who want to keep it reserved for the elderly.

“My concern is this: is the loss of housing to the most vulnerable population greater than what was going to be added?” Jamie Cosgrove, the Republican first selectman of Branford for the last eight years, told the CT Mirror during an interview last month. “I recognize that there’s a need for affordable housing across the spectrum, but again, I continue to ask this question. I think it needs to be addressed.”

Cosgrove and other town officials have fought in court for years to keep the Branford Housing Authority’s proposed project from moving forward. As the town’s chief elected official, Cosgrove also gets to determine who serves on the housing authority’s board, pending approval of the other selectmen.

Civil rights attorneys have become concerned in recent months as calls grew for Cosgrove to replace Tacie Lowe, the chairman of the housing authority who supports redeveloping the property and opening it up to families, just as he had done with the prior chairman.

With signs placed on the town green and throughout Branford calling for the removal of Lowe, Cosgrove and the selectmen replaced Lowe on May 5 with someone who has regularly spoken against the project.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas :: CTMirror.org

A sign placed outside the public housing complex calling for the removal of the chairman of the housing authority.

On the eve of that vote, the leader of Connecticut Fair Housing Center wrote the first selectman and threatened to file a fair housing lawsuit against the town if it continues to block the project.

“If the Town takes further actions motivated by misguided community opposition based on racist tropes and animus against families with children, that animus will be attributed to the Town,” wrote Erin Kemple, the executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. “The multi-year history of this redevelopment effort is rife with opposition based not on what is being built, but on who will live there.”

Facing more litigation, Cosgrove said he is leaving the decision to the housing authority. The new chairman, Robert Imperato, said he is inclined to let the Parkside project progress.

“I don’t see any reason why it would not move forward,” said Imperato. “It’s been approved, and we need to follow federal law here. And so the projects will move forward and get built out and hopefully provide new housing for folks who need it.”

Construction could begin as early as this fall — after nearly nine years.

However, housing advocates worry that what happened in Branford could have a chilling effect on other developers considering trying to build there, or provide other towns with a strategy for deterring the development of affordable housing for families.

“Nobody in their right mind would have gone through what we have just been through,” said Dara Kovel, the chief executive officer of Beacon Communities, the developer and property manager of Parkside in Branford. “If I knew then what I know now about how much money we’ve spent and how difficult it would have been — both financially, process-wise, emotionally for the residents and the board — I don’t think we would have done it. And so that’s a bad sign because the state has to find a way to make sure that people are willing to get through the hard process.”