Checking into Limbo

in Features

From above, the Church Street South complex looks like a yard of stray train cars. Each of the nineteen buildings is a squat, concrete rectangle coated in a layer of yellow-beige paint. It could be the site of a massive derailment. Evidence of human occupancy catches the eye: a blue bike on a second floor balcony, a towel hanging from a window. One basketball hoop.

Amy Marx observes the apartment complex from the eighth floor of a public housing high-rise next door. Church Street South—subsidized housing for low-income residents, right across from Union Station—is called the “The Jungle” by those who know it well. Pointing against the window’s glass, Marx can name each building and many of its former occupants. Laynette Del Hoyo lived right here, in Cinque Green. Luz DeJesus lived behind those trees in José Martí Court, and Yomaly Rivera had an apartment on Columbus Avenue on the other side. See those guys by those buildings, gathered behind the concrete wall? It got bad over there—most of the windows and doors are boarded up with black plywood.

Ramon DeJesus, a former tenant of Church Street South.
Ramon DeJesus, a former tenant of Church Street South.

Marx, a lawyer with New Haven Legal Assistance, represents the people who lived there. Del Hoyo, DeJesus, Rivera, their children, and more than fifty other families at Church Street South were displaced due to black mold, decaying ceilings, crumbling staircases, and illnesses, among countless other issues. New Haven’s Livable City Initiative declared their units unlivable last September, and occupants moved into hotels around the city. Over the past few years, Northland Investment Corporation, the Boston-based company that owns the complex, has been the target of myriad accusations of neglect because of the Church Street South conditions. Northland is now at the center of legal action involving more than a thousand tenants. Over two hundred families remain in the apartments, waiting to hear where they will go. Their homes haven’t yet been condemned, but they know that the buildings will soon be torn down.

With the help of the Housing Authority of New Haven, Northland has begun to relocate families in the most severe conditions, but the process of finding new, affordable housing is sluggish at best and torturous for many.

When the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assessed the property in response to the September inspections and other complaints, it came back with a score of 20 out of 100, the lowest given to any complex in New Haven’s history. The former residents are asking who is to blame. The previous year, HUD’s partial assessment was a positive eighty-one percent, calling into question how much attention the department really pays to low-income properties. With the help of the Housing Authority of New Haven (HANH), Northland has begun to relocate families in the most severe conditions, but the process of finding new, affordable housing is sluggish at best and torturous for many. It’s a project that requires government inspections, landlords who will accept subsidized rent for short periods of time, and vacant, affordable homes. At the time of this publication, only forty-two families had managed to sign leases and relocate—only about fifteen percent of the residents at Church Street South. Representatives from Northland declined to comment for this article.

Marx and another local attorney, David Rosen, separately represent the tenants against Northland, but while the private sector wrestles with accountability, families live in uncertainty. Seventeen families—left without homes in Church Street South or elsewhere—are still staying in hotels. Some have gone to the Clarion, six miles north from where Marx stood; others have ended up in the Premiere, one mile past the train tracks. They have been there for months. Their belongings are often in storage if not destroyed by mold, and even large families are crammed into rooms with two beds. This is the aftermath of neglect.

***
Clarion Hotel, Hamden, Connecticut.
I had to enter the Clarion through the side entrance to meet Del Hoyo in her room. Plywood panels covered the main doors and windows of the lobby, and the front desk had been moved into the continental breakfast area, across from the cereal dispensers. The Sunday before, at 3 a.m., Del Hoyo woke up thinking a bomb had gone off. After the explosion, she scrambled out of bed with Jeilyn, her 1-year-old daughter, to get dressed, in case she had to run through the shards of glass that covered the hallways.

When she stepped outside, she realized that the bomb was, in fact, a silver sedan that had careened through the lobby’s wall. In a video she took of the scene, a doorframe torn off its hinges lies on the floor, chunks of glass litter the carpets, and police lights blink through gauzy curtains from the parking lot outside. In the center of the frame, the car’s pixilated back bumper sticks out of a pile of rubble that, minutes before, had been the reception desk.

Because of the mold that climbed up the walls of Church Street South, Jeilyn now has three inhalers.

This incident didn’t faze Del Hoyo. Taking a record of her surroundings is routine by now, after snapping endless pictures of black mold and waterlogged windowsills from Church Street South. Compared to the gradual decay of her home, the car incident was minor—and ended quickly.

When I knock on her first-floor door, she welcomes me in as if I were coming over for dinner. But there is no place for Del Hoyo to serve dinner, let alone cook, in her room. Northland gives her a weekly allowance for food. Her amenities add up to one queen-sized bed, a flat screen TV, and a bathroom. Laundry lies in piles near the door, and her daughter’s shoes (a pink boot, a sparkly sneaker) are scattered across the carpet.

“There’s nothing to do here,” she says as she takes a seat on the bed, allowing me the only chair in the room. She’s been going to her mother’s and grandmother’s houses to avoid the hotel. “I literally have been going to work even on days that I don’t work, even on days when the office is closed.” She is still dressed in the scrubs she wears to her receptionist job at a health care clinic. Jeilyn crawls across the bed’s surface, back and forth, over and over, her small hands leaving slight impressions in the sheets.

Because of the mold that climbed up the walls of Church Street South, Jeilyn now has three inhalers. Like many other children who grew up in the complex, she visits the doctor frequently. Del Hoyo seems exhausted when describing her apartment falling to pieces. There’s no mold at the Clarion or the other hotels where tenants are staying, but their sterile anonymity is hard to adjust to.

Luz and Ramon DeJesus with their parrot Pistachio.
Luz and Ramon DeJesus with their parrot Pistachio.

Across the hotel, on the second floor, Luz DeJesus is cooking rice in a Crock-Pot that teeters on the edge of a countertop barely big enough for the small sink. Her short frame is cramped while standing in front of it to stir. The food—held in rubber bins and cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another—leans against the wall behind her. She offers me a glass of water and free reign of the room’s mauve striped couch, but she’s offering me access not to her home, but to a temporary space.

In September, both Del Hoyo and DeJesus moved out of Church Street South and into the Premiere Hotel, where they had stoves and a bit more space than they do now. The Premiere was close to their old apartments and the kids’ schools. But when Yale parents arrived for the University’s Family Weekend, DeJesus, Del Hoyo, and others had to move out. They were sent to the Clarion, on the other side of town, to make room for the visitors, a transfer coordinated by the Premiere. Larry Gottesdiener, the CEO of Northland, told the New Haven Independent that the incident was “unavoidable” and that “most or all” of the tenants would be moved back to the Premiere within days. The promise hasn’t held for DeJesus or Del Hoyo.

This is the aftermath of neglect.

DeJesus had lived at Church Street South’s José Martí Court building since 1996. She’s no stranger to the neglect from Church Street South administrators, which, she says, forced her family to be its own maintenance staff—it took building custodians two days to respond to her clogged sink, so her 17-year-old son Ramon bought supplies and did it himself.

“We knew we had mold in the bathroom,” she says. “But nobody really knew the condition we were living in.” DeJesus stresses how impossible it was to get help from the complex’s maintenance. If she called about the mold, they often told her they didn’t have the supplies or time. If they did come, they strolled in days after the complaint and did a flimsy patchwork job.

The environment became harder to bear as time went on. Her eyes and nose watered. The lupus she was diagnosed with in 2006 began acting up, and her whole family contracted asthma, a common symptom of living in the condemned apartments. “We’re all human just like they were,” she says of the Church Street South staff and executives. “But we were all living there basically, as I see it, as animals.”

As the mold pushed her out of her apartment, the violence and drug use in the Church Street South courtyards pushed her back in. The complex takes up three blocks with no through streets; areas hidden behind concrete walls make it easier to commit crimes. DeJesus says gunshots kept her awake at night. “I never used to come out of the house,” she remembers. “If I sat out front, it was for a little bit so my kids could get air, and then we’d come back inside.”

DeJesus’s case first gained momentum after Del Hoyo introduced her to Marx. In February 2015, Del Hoyo got the ball rolling by calling the Livable City Initiative to come inspect her apartment. She tried filing her own case against Northland. (She was training to be a paralegal at the time, she told me, which helped her with the process.) But when Del Hoyo made a minor mistake on a form, Northland’s lawyers were able to get the case dismissed. She went to Marx at New Haven Legal Assistance, and the two of them started gathering other accounts of mistreatment. Del Hoyo texted neighbors she knew in the complex, asking if their apartment had black spots on the ceilings; Marx walked around Church Street South, asking people if she could see if the walls in their homes were leaking. Her office is now working with ninety-nine families, and the list is growing.

They repeat the phrase, “What’s going to happen after a year?” after most of their sentences, as if it were a prayer.

While we are talking, DeJesus’s youngest daughter, Ashley, who’s 13 and speaks in a soft, measured voice, and Naydeliz, DeJesus’s 2-year-old, bright-eyed granddaughter, run into the room. They ask: “Can we go to the lobby?” and then, later, “Can we go to the pool?” Those are their only options for play, unless they want to run down the hall with their Yorkshire or hold their green parrot Pistachio, who squawks from beneath the pink rag covering its cage.

DeJesus’s aunt, Haydee Diaz, who lives on the third floor of the Clarion, joins us on the couch. Diaz lives by herself. She also has breathing problems, and she says her doctor insists on monthly visits after seeing photos of the mold under her sink at Church Street South. With Diaz in the room to add to the complaints, DeJesus gets angrier about how long she’s waited for a home. They repeat the phrase, “What’s going to happen after a year?” after most of their sentences, as if it were a prayer.

“We’re not asking to come out of the Jungle and live in a palace!” DeJesus says. “We want something comfortable,” The city’s housing authority is helping locate new homes, but finding a comfortable spot requires time and energy, the kind DeJesus simply doesn’t have. With her severe illnesses, children, and lack of a job, she is more disadvantaged in the housing race than most tenants.

When the kids are off at the pool, DeJesus and Diaz have a harder time keeping their emotions in check. When Diaz starts to cry, steeling her face by looking at the TV, DeJesus burrows her face in her aunt’s shoulder. Then, she looks at me.

If HUD can miss serious, complex-wide issues, how can the department ensure that they catch life-threatening conditions?

“You know, we’re sitting here and talking to you,” she says slowly. “But inside we’re dying to cry.”

She adds one more thing.

“All I can say is, God bless Amy. God bless David Rosen.” Diaz nods in approval.

***
City Hall, New Haven, Connecticut.
In November, Marx and Del Hoyo came to Meeting Room 3 of New Haven’s City Hall to present their case to the Black and Hispanic Caucus of the Board of Alders. (The majority of tenants at Church Street South, like the residents of New Haven generally, are Black or Latino.) Del Hoyo came straight from work, her burgundy-tinted hair pulled back into a tight bun.

“Thank you, chairwoman, for your tireless efforts so far,” Marx said, addressing Ward 6 alder Dolores Colón, the chairwoman of the caucus. After hearing Marx’s concerns and Del Hoyo’s testimony, the alders voted unanimously to put pressure on Northland from inside the city government. Perhaps they could deny the company building permits or cite the Fair Housing Act rules to describe how Northland’s harmful practices disproportionately affect minority residents. There would continue to be meetings about Church Street South and the larger housing landscape of New Haven in the coming months, in the same room and with many of the same faces. But, for Del Hoyo and DeJesus, little has been decided. The rest of the complex’s families have to stay put in the meantime.

Small numbers of residents continue to move out of Church Street South each month, but the number of available spaces for them in New Haven is shrinking. No law requires Northland to replace the complex’s 301 units. Marx is wary that the company could find a way to duck out, perhaps by dumping all the tenants into temporary housing or building apartments that the current residents couldn’t afford.

Gottesdiener, Northland’s CEO, told the Boston Globe that the Church Street South negligence “is an organizational failure and I take responsibility for it. We’re not seasoned subsidized housing developers.” But he also wrote about Marx in an October email to the New Haven Independent:

While we commend her for shining a spotlight on this issue, it is time for her to stop pointing fingers and start working toward the ultimate goal, getting all of the families into quality housing with as little disruption to their lives as possible…

In December, Northland proposed a new plan designed to relocate the Church Street South tenants within the next six months. If HUD approves it, the tenants will have two options for new housing: they can take part in something called an “8bb transfer,” in which residents will move to another large complex that Northland has to find and coordinate. They can also request a “portable voucher,” a type of subsidy that will follow them to an apartment or house of their choice.

Both pose problems: the 8bb is preferable for people who might have trouble getting voucher approval, since certain landlords deny leases on the basis of language barriers, illnesses, disabilities, and criminal records. But the list of possible locations that Northland has proposed to HUD for this transfer, Marx says, is anything but helpful—even a “fiction.” One location, called Val Macri, is a fully subsidized, fully occupied complex for homeless people. Many of the other buildings aren’t even in New Haven. The voucher allows people to select their own homes, for which the tenants will pay only thirty percent of the cost. But in New Haven, there simply aren’t enough units in the city—the pickings for three-, four-, and five-bedroom apartments are slim and often too expensive.

“We were dying, little by little, inside that place.” —Yomaly Rivera

Karen DuBois-Walton, executive director of the Housing Authority, explained that it’s impossible for Northland to move the Church Street South tenants at once: “They’re not going to find 301 units all in one effort, so my guess is they’ll find the first twenty, and then another thirty.”

Northland, HUD, and the city are currently negotiating who is going to pay, and how much, to make this all come to pass. After the company agreed to pay for portable vouchers, the process gained momentum.

Civil rights attorney David Rosen is preparing a lawsuit separate from Marx’s. He wants Northland to pay its former occupants for damages. In his office on Orange Street, with his feet propped on his desk, he tells me he’s looking for serious compensation.

The New Haven Register called Rosen the “dean of the civil rights lawyers in Connecticut.” In 1970, he represented Bobby Seale, the co-founder of the Black Panther Party. Seale was tried and acquitted for shooting Alex Rackley, a fellow Panther thought to be a spy, in the back of the head and dumping him in the Coginchaug River in Middleton, Connecticut. Since what Rosen calls “the trial of the century of the year,” he’s continued to focus on civil rights cases.

“They’re stuck,” Rosen says of the Church Street South tenants. “For the most part, they’re parents of young children, and the ones who are working aren’t making much money at all.” He’s working with Del Hoyo, DeJesus, and many others, but his process thus far is quieter than Marx’s—his case is simmering as he collects information on everything from lost furniture to damaged lungs.

If Rosen’s lawsuit ends up calling national attention to Church Street South, it could also emphasize serious questions about how HUD conducts business with low-income properties. While the 20/100 score HUD recently gave the complex reflects tenant complaints, its 81/100 score in October 2014 is confusing. There were no major capital investments in Northland between 2013 and 2015, meaning that there is no obvious reason their evaluation rose about 20 points from 64/100 in October 2013 before plummeting so drastically.

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Amidst all the wrangling over who is to blame, one thing is clear: nobody wants to pay. Rosen’s case is against Northland, but the government was still responsible for funneling money to a negligent landlord. Rhonda Siciliano, the spokeswoman of the HUD regional office in Boston, which oversees New Haven, says the department sampled only a few units at Church Street South during the earlier inspections, contributing to the misleading results. Their inspection process, she said, doesn’t even allow mold to affect scores in meaningful ways. If HUD can miss serious, complex-wide issues, how can the department ensure that they catch life-threatening conditions?

***
Tyler Street, New Haven, Connecticut.
At this visit, there’s no lobby to go through—or around—before knocking on the door. Yomaly Rivera’s new house is on Tyler Street, and I’m waiting on her front steps. The house has two floors, a driveway, its own mailbox, a backyard, and even a Christmas tree inside, under which Rivera has placed a tower of presents for her kids. She’s still in the process of decorating, but she’s proud to show me around. (Her daughter Tatiana’s room, for instance, lacks a bedframe, but it has cheetah-print curtains for now.) “I love it here,” she says, again and again. She’s right across the street from Evergreen Cemetery. When she lets me in the front door, she glances at the rolling hills of tombstones from her porch. “The neighbors are quiet.”

She goes back to Church Street South only to pick up the mail. “It’s dead over there,” she says.

“I was so excited,” she said, remembering the moment she found the house. She could finally move out of her room at the Premiere Hotel, where she had lived since August. “I was jumping around.” That day, the landlord called her to say the house passed HUD inspection, and all that was left was to get an official record of that pass, sign some papers at Church Street South, and move her belongings, most of which were still in their boxes (new and mold-free) and piled in the corner of the hotel room. She looked forward to having some privacy on Tyler Street—and some peace.

Rivera is letting herself enjoy the house, but she can’t yet cut ties with Northland. Until the portable vouchers get approved by HUD headquarters, she will continue using something called a “pass-through lease” to pay her rent—a temporary subsidy that is not part of Northland’s proposed voucher program. All tenants who have moved into their own apartments or houses currently use these leases, and in most cases, Northland has been paying about twelve hundred dollars a month for them, Marx said. Pass-throughs are part of a process that HUD usually reserves for those in the wake of a natural disaster. In this case, the disaster is Church Street South itself.

Even though she’s settled in her new home, Rivera still feels the instability of relocation due to her financial dependency on Northland. She started cosmetology school to try to secure a more steady income. (Her hair had become a collage of bright red and brown since we first spoke in her room at the Premiere.) She’s worried that the house could become too expensive, even after she receives her voucher from Northland. If she has no other options, Rivera could potentially move back into an apartment complex like Church Street South. For her, this is the last resort—she recoils from even talking about her old home.

She plans to host her mother-in-law, who’s coming from Pennsylvania, for Christmas this year. It will be a far cry from Thanksgiving, when half of her possessions were still in the hotel, the lease unsigned, and her husband sick with pneumonia. “Now, it’s kind of calm,” she tells me. “We good now.”

Rivera’s situation represents the ideal outcome for the tenants, but she’s one of the early—and lucky—ones. She is now waiting, with fingers crossed, for the results of David Rosen’s lawsuit. “I know we’re gonna win this. It wasn’t our fault. We were dying, little by little, inside that place.”

Armed with photos of mold stretched across her drywall, she says she’s ready to testify in court during the lawsuit. In one of them, something that looks like a mushroom sprouts from a kitchen wall. She goes back to Church Street South only to pick up the mail. “It’s dead over there,” she says.

***
Church Street South, New Haven, Connecticut.
From the ground, it’s clear why they call it the Jungle.

Snow is either frozen into solid sheets or melted into dark, static pools in the mud. It congregates, too, around the more eerie relics of Church Street South’s late-sixties architecture: yellow stone cylinders sticking out of the ground; vacant cinderblock buildings with barred windows, and, in the middle of one courtyard, an inexplicable concrete monolith.

It’s easy to get lost in the Jungle, seemingly by design. The system of squat walls is so jumbled that you’ll find yourself in a corner, completely hidden to others in the complex or anyone on the street. Each dense building has cramped passageways running through it, dark even on a sunny afternoon. Amy Marx points to the rusting stairways, the dripping, icy pipes, and the trash collecting in abandoned yards. As she walks past Del Hoyo’s former yard gate (a wooden one, painted green with a yellow sun), someone sticks a head out of a parked minivan to yell, “Hey, that’s Amy Marx!” She has become a familiar face at the complex.

“I was just really speechless for a while,” she says of her first visit. “It was hard to believe that we had families in New Haven living in conditions that were so close to the places that all of us go, and yet so far from the reality of the rest of our lives.”

The system of squat walls is so jumbled that you’ll find yourself in a corner, completely hidden to others in the complex or anyone on the street.

She’s here to visit yet another family that has called her office. They live in a building called De Diego by the parking lot, and their apartment is bookended by ones that have been condemned. Black plywood covers the windows and doors here, too. Marx sighs. “It’s brutalism in disrepair.”

Marx approaches a woman who is standing by the staircase, smoking a cigarette.

“Hey there, I’m a legal aid,” Marx tells her. “Carolyn called me. Is she home? Do you have mold?”

The woman quickly finishes her cigarette. She nods. They walk upstairs and go inside.

Most, if not all, of the tenants will be relieved to close their Church Street South doors for the last time. But when they leave their apartments, they’ll also leave behind a place they called theirs. There’s pride in that sense of belonging. For over a thousand people, that pride is in jeopardy. In the meantime, they’ll be living in limbos—ones that are intact, dry, and without mold, but ones that certainly are not home.

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