| A Tale
of Two Cities:
The Rise & Fall of Public Housing
By Nancy O. Albert
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Women reading on lawn of unidentified
housing project, circa 1950.
housing projects in many ways represent a visionary social experiment.
The burgeoning defense industry, prompted by the Second World War,
exacerbated housing shortages for workers in Connecticut and nationwide.
This need for housing put additional pressures on already overcrowded
tenements in urban neighborhoods. Low density housing, surrounded
by lawns, gardens and trees, was seen by planners as a way to improve
living conditions for poor and working-class families. Although
the construction of housing projects solved the immediate need for
affordable housing during wartime and the booming postwar years,
poor design, shoddy construction, changes in federal housing policy,
weak local management, and regional economic decline took their
toll. By the 1980s these projects were considered failures; they
were plagued with drugs and crime and viewed as a blight on the
environment. During the 1990s many were demolished. These photographs,
from the files of the Hartford and Middletown housing authorities,
offer a look at the history of public housing in the two cities
and a preview of the role public housing may play in the future.
Public housing construction in the United States began with the
passage of the Public Housing Act of 1937. Soon local housing authorities,
thought to be more responsive to local needs, were created. From
the start, the federal government regulated the kind of housing
that could be built, drafted rules for selecting tenants, and devised
formulas for setting rental fees based on family income. In 1965
local housing authorities came under the jurisdiction of the Department
of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
The demolition of Long River Village during
the summer of 1999. Many residents came to watch and pick up
mementos of their former homes. Photo by Nancy O. Albert from
a project commissioned by the Middletown Housing Authority.
1940, the Hartford Housing Authority broke ground for Connecticut's
first public housing project, a 146-unit complex called Nelton Court.
In 1941, the 222-unit Dutch Point Colony, the 500-unit Bellevue
Square and the 1,000-unit Charter Oak Terrace, designed as temporary
housing for defense workers, were built. Rice Heights was begun
soon after, originally to house war veterans. While some of these
housing developments were built in urban areas, Charter Oak Terrace
and Rice Heights were built on farmland near the south branch of
the Park River. Most of the projects were of a standard design,
usually brick or wood row housing and featured playgrounds, a community
center, an auditorium, a health clinic, and meeting rooms.
In the early years, African Americans were actively kept out of
public housing. As David Radcliffe, author of Charter Oak Terrace:
Life, Death and Rebirth of a Public Housing Project noted in an
October 2002 interview, "Hartford's understood policy of 'controlled
integration' was common in many public housing authorities in the
1950s and 1960s. This approach forced many black families, living
in dreadful slum conditions, to wait until a unit reserved for minorities
became available, even if other 'white' units sat vacant. Underneath
this approach was certainly some discrimination, if not downright
racism on the part of many developers and bankers who sought to
maintain segregated housing and schools."
Woman with baby and unidentified official.
the gradual shift in public housing occupancy from whites to African
Americans were Hispanics, who began moving into Hartford in the
1960s. They came originally as farm laborers to work in the tobacco
fields. In need of affordable housing, they soon made up a large
percentage of the housing project population.
Currently housing authorities across the country are facing the
dilemma of what to do with aging housing projects. Recent attempted
remedies include the demolition of existing units and a move toward
still lower density housing. Starting in 1996, housing units at
Charter Oak Terrace and Rice Heights were demolished and a smaller
number of duplex and single-family homes built on the site. Not
surprisingly, these moves proved controversial. Many questions were
raised, particularly about the futures of the displaced people.
Connecticut's smaller cities face problems similar to Hartford's.
In 1999, Long River Village, Middletown's oldest housing project,
was demolished. I was hired by William Vasiliou, Director of the
Middletown Housing Authority (MHA), to document its last days. Constructed
during the 1940s as temporary housing for workers, it was built
in a rural area on the Connecticut River, close to Connecticut Valley
Hospital. After the war it was taken over by MHA, and returning
war veterans and their families were the first tenants. Over the
years conditions gradually deteriorated and its isolated location
exacerbated the problems of drug dealing and other crime.
Children at play at an unidentified housing
In October 2002, I interviewed William Vasiliou. We discussed what
happens to the tenants of Middle-town housing projects about to
be razed and the future role of housing authorities. When units
are demolished MHA tries to move displaced tenants into Section
8, a program it administers that provides federally subsidized housing
assistance in the private sector. MHA is obligated by law to assist
in all aspects of relocation and works with community organizations
such as Legal Aid. Housing was found for all former residents of
Long River Village according to Vasiliou.
Pointing to the future of public housing, Vasiliou discussed the
most recent MHA project, three neo-Victorian houses built on land
donated by the city. The houses were built without government money,
which has become limited, and were sold on a preference system at
below market value. Existing housing authority residents were given
first priority and fifty people applied. Each applicant needed to
meet certain income and credit history criteria; a local bank oversaw
all applications. Although the process received some criticism,
it was done without violation of housing laws and with no racial
preferences. He feels the city benefits from the addition of three
affordable housing units and it is his philosophy that MHA should
play an entrepreneurial role in the community. In this vein, he
is currently planning a small townhouse unit specially designed
for the hearing impaired.
Vasiliou says that current thinking favors a move away from housing
projects. Future units will be smaller, fifty to sixty units at
most. Some units will be demolished in remaining projects, lowering
concentration and improving design. Projects like Long River Village,
built as temporary war housing, lived their useful life. They will
never be built again.
Nancy O. Albert is University Coordinator and Director of the Russell
House at Wesleyan University. She has been project photographer
for the Hartford Studies Project at Trinity College since 1992.
Her work has been widely exhibited in area galleries. She is the
HRJ photo editor.
Unless otherwise noted, all photographs from the Hartford Housing
Authority; originals in the Hartford Collection at the Hartford