Imagine that every community was free of vacant lots littered with garbage, abandoned vehicles and furniture. Imagine that every neighborhood had no abandoned or dilapidated buildings. Imagine a community where residents and businesses had clean, safe and attractive places to live, work and thrive. This is a vision shared by the members of the Catalyst Endowment Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving as they began looking into ways to fight blight using the $52,000 in grant funds they had available for 2018.
Each year, Catalyst Endowment Fund members choose a topic affecting the community and invite local experts to educate Fund members. Area nonprofits are then invited to submit grant proposals that address the topic, and members of the giving circle analyze the proposals and award grants over the course of a year.
This year’s grant applicants were asked to address blight by focusing on the safety and vitality of our communities by using one or more of these strategies:
In October, four finalists made presentations to the membership of the Catalyst Endowment Fund, with the Christian Activities Council and Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance each being selected to receive grants of $26,000 each.
“Catalyst members were actively engaged in learning more about the effects of blight in the region during 2018. We learned about blight in various forms, from urban to rural settings, and participated in a bus tour and a Habitat for Humanity volunteer day,” said Catalyst Steering Committee Chair Kathleen Costello. “We are excited about supporting the Christian Activities Council and Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance, which we hope will be the catalyst for developing more activism surrounding blight remediation in the region.”
The mission of the Christian Activities Council (CAC) is to develop leaders who act collectively for social justice. CAC does this by organizing residents and faith-based institutions to address specific, winnable issues affecting quality of life in Greater Hartford. A year ago, residents of Hartford’s Clay Arsenal Renaissance Apartments worked with the Christian Activities Council to successfully revoke a one million dollar Housing and Urban Development grant from a New York-based absentee landlord and relocate tenants to better housing. Because of this successful effort, tenants from the 84-unit HUD-subsidized housing project, Barbour Gardens, reached out to the Christian Activities Council asking for assistance in helping to organize and advocate for better housing conditions. Despite receiving $1.1 million a year in federal subsidies in addition to the tenants' rent responsibilities, the landlords have failed to address extensive leaks, mold, water damage, and pest infestation and a variety of other health and safety concerns.
“Thanks to the grant from the Catalyst Endowment Fund, Christian Activities Council can continue to organize, engage, and equip resident leaders at Barbour Gardens with the tools to hold the city, HUD, and the project's owners accountable, said CAC Executive Director Cori Mackey. “The goal of this initiative is to force the property owners to make substantial repairs or sell the building to a reputable owner.”
The Christian Activities Council staff is currently working with resident leaders to gain the skills necessary to run their own tenant association to ensure ongoing accountability with the property owners. The landlord can choose to cooperate and invest the funds they are legally required to invest under their HUD subsidy to bring the buildings up to code. If the property owner fails to cooperate, tenants can engage in an extensive organizing process to have the HUD subsidy revoked and set the stage for a sale and tenant relocation.
For the past 14 years, the Northside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance (NINA), a nonprofit community development corporation, has worked to rehabilitate blighted historic properties in Hartford's Asylum Hill neighborhood. NINA has restored nearly 25 buildings in Asylum Hill, creating new owner-occupied homes for low- to moderate-income families.
The $26,000 grant from the Catalyst Endowment Fund will support the renovation of two more blighted properties at 115 and 117 Sigourney Street while also providing opportunities for approximately 200 volunteers to work at these two project sites. The Catalyst funds will be used in part to purchase materials for use by volunteers assigned to work on the project. Volunteers will not only help restore these two historic structures but will also learn about the history of Asylum Hill and the effect blight has had on the quality of life in the neighborhood. In addition, volunteers will experience firsthand how organizations like NINA are working to revitalize Hartford's neighborhoods. At the end of the project, NINA will have restored 115 Sigourney Street as an affordable, owner-occupied single-family home and 117 Sigourney Street as an affordable, owner-occupied three-family home.
“This project really addresses two critical needs within Asylum Hill,” said NINA Executive Director Ken Johnson. “First, our project remediates blight. By eliminating blight, we improve the perception of the neighborhood which, in turn, encourages greater private investment in the area. Second, the project will create new homeownership opportunities in a neighborhood with a very low homeownership rate."
Since the Catalyst Endowment Fund was established 26 years ago, grants totaling more than one million dollars have been awarded in support of nonprofit programs in areas such as health, housing, workforce development and education. The Hartford Foundation pools and invests donations from members to fund grants based on program areas selected by the membership. Funds like Catalyst, also known as ‘giving circles,’ provide individuals with an opportunity to be involved with philanthropy while providing greater impact through the pooled contributions. For more information on the Catalyst Endowment Fund, contact Betty Ann Grady at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860-548-1888 x1055.
The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving is the community foundation for Hartford and 28 surrounding communities. Made possible by the gifts of generous individuals, families and organizations, the Foundation has awarded grants of more than $720 million since its founding in 1925. For more information about the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, visit www.hfpg.org or call 860-548-1888.