March 22 Catalyst Endowment Fund Meeting Summary

Members begin discussion of 2018 theme: Fight Blight:  One Neighborhood at a Time. 

More than 100 members and guests attended the first meeting of the 2018 Catalyst Endowment Fund at the Spotlight Theatres Front Street Stadium 4 in Hartford on March 22 to begin exploring this year’s theme, “Fight Blight: One Neighborhood at a Time.”

Catalyst Steering Committee chair Kathleen Costello shared a report on the Fund’s activities in 2017 and its plans for 2018. She then introduced Mark Overmyer-Velázquez, director of UCONN Hartford, who offered welcoming remarks to those in attendance and discussed UCONN’s efforts to support Hartford’s revitalization. Just before the meeting, many Catalyst members took the opportunity to see the transformation first hand, taking a tour of the old Hartford Times building. That building, vacant for decades, anchors UCONN’s Hartford campus.. Hartford Foundation president Jay Williams discussed some of his own experiences in responding to blight as the former mayor of Youngstown, Ohio, which had dealt with a significant loss in population and increased blight before his tenure. Williams then introduced the evening’s keynote speaker, Laura Settlemyer, director of blight remediation for the City of Hartford.

Settlemyer provided an overview of some of the costs of blight in communities, including decreased property values for adjacent properties; decreased property tax revenues from nonpayment of taxes and declining property values; increased costs of police and public safety response and surveillance; and high incidences of arson. She emphasized that there are blighted properties in virtually every neighborhood in Hartford.  Settlemyer also highlighted Hartford’s new tactic for blight remediation, which focuses on voluntary compliance, public cost recovery and, when necessary, forced transfer of blighted properties to responsible ownership. She said these efforts prioritize providing support for vulnerable owner-occupants and tenants. Violations of city blight ordinances include a structure becoming dilapidated (2+ property maintenance violations); posing serious or immediate danger to the community; attracting illegal activity; fire hazard; health and sanitary issues; accumulation of trash or inoperable vehicles or machinery; and extended vacancy (exceeding 120 days).

Some of the challenges and considerations related to blight remediation, Settlemeyer said, include a lack of adequate funding, with neither the owner nor the city having the resources to make necessary improvements to a property.  Other significant challenges involve making changes to occupied properties; waste disposal; graffiti; vacant lots; the high cost of demolition; and the lack of staff to enforce zoning regulations.  Settlemyer also discussed the recent $5 million state grant for the creation of the Hartford Land Bank, which is a tool for local government and the community to convert vacant, abandoned, and foreclosed properties into productive use. Settlemyer briefly touched upon lessons learned from other communities working to alleviate blight, including Detroit, Michigan, New Orleans, Louisiana, Flint, Michigan, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Following her formal presentation, Settlemyer fielded a number of questions from the audience, many of them seeking advice on how Catalyst could make the greatest impact on blight through its 2018 grantmaking. While she said the costs associated with tearing down and/or rebuilding blighted buildings are high, Settlemyer encouraged Catalyst members to consider a range of revitalization strategies where a $50,000 grant could have a significant impact on a block or a neighborhood.

The Catalyst Endowment Fund will hold its second program of the year on June 20, 2018 at a site that has yet to be determined. Please contact Betty Ann Grady at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving or 860-548-1888) for more information. 

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