They had decided to change their organization’s name. So Dennis Cahill stood up in front of the group, about 50 strong, and led them in a chant.
“Be aware: we’re no longer the Public Housing Resident Network!” he announced, suited and bespectacled, arms in the air. “We’re now the Publicly-ASSISTED Housing Resident Network. Say it with me!”
They did, over and over, some in Spanish, some in English: so they could all remember to include that extra word that would open their doors to more members.
This was the Publicly-Assisted Housing Resident Network (PHRN) membership meeting, a four-times-a-year event drawing people from across the state to talk housing policy, issues organizing and their own troubles or triumphs with the Connecticut public housing system.
PHRN is a ragtag bunch, an unlikely group of about 500 dues-paying members from sites scattered across the state. They live in low-income, publicly-assisted housing, and before the existence of PHRN, say they had little in the way of a voice or sense of urgency in getting their concerns addressed. But over the past six years, with the help of the Connecticut Housing Coalition (CHC), as they developed a network of smaller tenant groups at sites across the state, they’ve also evolved into a small powerhouse of increasingly sophisticated advocates.
They’ve studied up on housing policy and law, developed relationships with legislators in Hartford and sent members to Washington, D.C., to connect with national groups and lobby on Capitol Hill. It’s one of the first of its kind in the country: a statewide, as opposed to local, coalition of public housing tenants.
“This is about bringing people together from Stamford, from Hartford, from wherever, and working together to confront the issues,” said PHRN President James White. “We’re all about education, and affecting policy at the state level.”
“PHRN — it helps us keep housing authorities in check,” Cahill, a group member, said. “As a coalition, we’re more able to help tenants out with problems from maintenance to eviction — in some cases they can be supplied with lawyers. It gives us more rights, and so more hope.”
Some members don’t read or write, some speak only Spanish. Few have cars, many don’t own a cell phone or have access to the Internet, so getting people to meetings and keeping them informed means knocking on doors and calling homes.
“There’s been this assumption about low-income, public housing residents, that we’re one-track minded, that we know very little about the issues and so we’re powerless,” said White. “But PHRN has proved that wrong.”
Now as a result of one key legislative victory, and an important budgetary development, the group will soon be thrust into the limelight.
The state’s stock of public housing is in sad shape — its 17,000 units are deteriorating. Many are simply uninhabitable and therefore, empty. Connecticut is one of four states with its own, state-funded public housing developments, in addition to federally supported housing. But those housing complexes have deteriorated slowly in the past two decades, as the state has failed to pay for maintenance. The last time state public housing saw a development push was under Gov. William A. O’Neill in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“For the past 20 years, the state of Connecticut has languished in its affordable housing commitments,” Malloy admitted, in a news conference in February.
But that has changed. The governor this year made a $362.5 million commitment to affordable housing. Most of that money — $30 million in bonding for each of the next 10 years — will be set aside to renovate existing public housing.
That’s where PHRN comes in. Since its inception nearly six years ago (through the state housing coalition, with the help of the Department of Economic and Community Development and the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority), the group has been instrumental in passing legislation about public housing.
PHRN last year lobbied for and saw S.B. 1076 enacted, the Senate bill that requires resident participation in any plans to revitalize state-operated public housing developments. There had been an existing provision requiring tenant input but, according to White, residents still had trouble making their voices heard. The new bill requires that any developer planning renovations or redevelopment enter into a formal agreement — a memorandum of understanding — with the site’s tenant organization. Unless a developer does this, the plans will receive no funding from the state economic and community development department or the state Housing Finance Authority.
“This is a bill that we fought for, a bill that puts us as residents in a seat at the negotiation table,” said PHRN board member Daisy Franklin.
That means if the legislature approves Malloy’s housing plan, and all goes according to law, PHRN members will have a say and influence over that $300 million spent over the next decade for public housing renovations.
Newly elected board member John Ward urged the group to go back to their communities and tell them about the bill — and the money.
“I know from experience, if we organize and get our act together, things start snapping. We will have a say in how this money is spent,” he said.
There have been other successes: Another bill, passed in June 2011, gives public housing residents the right to elect a tenant commissioner to represent them on their town or city’s housing authority’s board of commissioners. PHRN President James White lives in the Chamberlain Heights public housing development in Meriden, and is one of five Meriden Housing Authority Board members.
Independent of state government and city housing authorities, the resident-led organization unites tenant groups in public housing communities across Connecticut. There are about 20 groups involved at the moment, from Hartford to Meriden to Stamford, a number that grows each year. Its leaders — 16 board members — live in public housing. With help from two Connecticut Housing Coalition staff members, they educate each other on housing policy, legislative developments, organizing strategies and their rights as public housing tenants.
“In our world, if you’re poor or a minority, sometimes you’re treated as a second-class citizen,” said Kim McLaughlin, a coalition staff member who works with PHRN. “The only way to change that balance of power is to create a powerful organization. That takes time, but it’s what’s so exciting about this group.”
For the March meeting, PHRN members piled into vans and cars — supplied by friends, family, even their own housing authorities, and drove to New Haven. They met on the top floor of McQueeney Towers, a public housing development for the elderly.
“The logistics helps the group build trust, I think.” said McLaughlin, who helps coordinate meetings spots, phone calls and rides. “People don’t have computers or cells, no email or text necessarily. So you have to talk. And they carpool, they spend hours together. That builds relationships and collaboration.”
On the top floor of McQueeney Towers, the group made that switch from the word Public — to Publicly-Assisted. It was an effort to open itself up to residents in private developments who are supported by state or federal housing grants.
Next, they welcomed two new tenant groups to the fold: the St. Elizabeth and King Court developments in East Hartford.
“For the past five years, the East Hartford Housing authority has been trying to sell our development,” said Mary Hill, president of the King Court tenants’ association. “After reaching out to the housing authority and town councils with no success, we found PHRN. You all helped us organize.”
More specifically, they found Les Williams — a full-time staff member paid by the housing coalition to work with PHRN. Williams travels the state, galvanizing local tenant groups and getting them the aid and information they need. Since enlisting Williams’ help, the King Court tenants’ association has retained legal counsel, and is working on possible solutions.
“We want to stay in our homes, we’re working very hard, and we’re thankful that we’ve met all of you in this group,” Hill continued. “We’re learning that the more you reach out, and consistently, the more can be accomplished.”
The meeting, two hours long and lively, adjourned around midday. The group stuck around for a Boston Chicken buffet and continued talking.
Five PHRN board members are headed to Washington, D.C., next week, for the National Low Income Housing Conference. They’ll present a workshop for other low-income residents, advocates and experts from across the country on their history, strategies and successes. On the last day of the conference, the group plans to head to Capitol Hill to lobby members of the Connecticut delegation.
“I saw Chris Murphy at an event the other day,” said PHRN board member Alberta Witherspoon, nodding to the rest of her board members.
“He remembered me from last year. He emailed his staff to let them know we would be stopping by in Washington.”
Words and photographs by Uma Ramiah. Click through here for the web version.