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Housing issues affect everyone in Connecticut, from those who are searching for a safe place to live, to those who may find it increasingly difficult to afford a place they already call home.WNPR is covering Connecticut's housing and homelessness issues in a series that examines how residents are handling the challenges they face. We look at the trends that matter most right now, and tell stories that help bring the issues to light.

Bridgeport Nonprofit Unveils New Apartments To Help Address Housing Insecurity

David Reyes, a U.S. army veteran and Bridgeport resident, was the first tenant of West Liberty Commons -- the latest affordable housing development by non-profit Building Neighborhoods Together.
Camila Vallejo
/
Connecticut Public Radio
David Reyes, a U.S. Army veteran and Bridgeport resident, was the first tenant of West Liberty Commons -- the latest affordable housing development by nonprofit Building Neighborhoods Together.

Bridgeport resident David Reyes, 57, was once homeless with no other place to sleep than on the streets. He was unhoused for four years after serving in the Army. 

 

“Because of me losing my ability to work -- that is due to a spine injury -- I slowly became one of more than 553,752 souls that are homeless across this nation,” Reyes said. 

Today, the U.S. veteran occupies one of 18 new townhouse-style apartments at West Liberty Commons by Building Neighborhoods Together (BNT), formerly known as the Bridgeport Neighborhood Trust. 

 

During a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday, Reyes emphasized how honored he felt to have his new apartment -- his first self-dependent move after years of moving among hospital bed, electric wheelchair and cane due to his spine injury. 

 

“It shows those who are less fortunate or physically disabled a ray of hope that they, too, can be blessed with the likes of projects like West Liberty Commons,” Reyes said. 

 

His story is exactly what BNT is hoping to address -- to help end homelessness and housing insecurity by creating more affordable housing across Connecticut. 

 

“Affordable housing raises salaries and increases our tax base,” said Noah Gotbaum, CEO of Building Neighborhoods Together. “Affordable housing makes our streets safer and solidifies our neighborhoods. Affordable housing means far better educational outcomes for our kids, and it keeps families together.” 

 

West Liberty Commons is the latest of four redevelopments by BNT in the Downtown West neighborhood since 2016. The nonprofit says it’s part of a $30 million investment to promote downtown Bridgeport and make it a community free of blight and overgrown abandoned lots.

 

But the focus isn’t only on Bridgeport. As one of the wealthiest counties in the country, Gotbaum said, Fairfield County’s affordable housing units don’t add up. And it’s an issue. 

 

“Fairfield County alone has an affordable housing gap of 26,000 units. That’s criminal … Affordability is so critical because families don’t have to pick between paying rent and putting food on the table,” Gotbaum said. “We have to declare housing, like the air we breathe and food we eat, a necessity. It’s a human right.” 

 

The white and green $5 million complex stands tall on a once-vacant lot. It received a $3.5 million grant from the Department of Housing and resourced the rest from a variety of funders, including People’s United Bank, Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston and the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.

 

“This project was done like lasagna. We got base funding from the Department of Housing and then we needed help from, believe it or not, 11 other funders to complete this,” Gotbaum said. 

 

The development may seem small-scale, Gotbaum added, but it took a village from conception to unveiling. And the rather complex funding system hints at why affordable housing is scarce. 

 

“We all need to do something,” Gotbaum said. “Starting here, starting now.” 

 

Bridgeport Councilman Jorge Cruz shared similar sentiments. He was one of a handful of state and local officials who also spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. 

 

“We have a couple still sleeping behind the courthouse, we have a couple people sleeping at the train station, bus station,” Cruz said. “But we have a lot of work to do. We have a housing crisis here in Bridgeport, and I’m afraid of how many more bodies are going to be laying out here in the streets.” 

 

West Liberty Commons is currently fully occupied with a quarter of tenants previously homeless, like Reyes. 

 

“We are pioneers of West Liberty Commons. Pioneers because no one has ever lived on this lot,” he said. “Because it was just that, a lot with grass and trees before 17 months ago.” 

 

And now, he said, it’s a home. 

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