Like many old cities in the industrial Northeast, New Haven, Conn., has suffered considerable population loss during the 1990s. An estimated 7,600 people left the city between 1990 and 1995, leaving it with a current population of about 122,000.

Middle class flight from the city, the loss of tax revenues and an inefficient local bureaucracy all led to a serious blight problem. Indeed, New Haven's number of vacant buildings increased from 508 in 1992 to 786 in 1995, according to the fire department.

Some vacant buildings were used for activities like drug use and dealing; others could best be described as fire hazards or structurally unsafe.

Last year, Mayor John DeStefano prescribed strong medicine: consolidation of various city housing programs, privatization, stepped-up housing code enforcement, tax incentives for building restoration, a reduction of red tape and a push for broad-based community involvement.

The city cobbled together about $10 million in funding from a variety of sources, including the local board of aldermen, the state government, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The Livable City Initiative, launched July 1, 1996, seeks to turn a negative — population loss — into a positive: more spacious, safer and attractive neighborhoods.

New Haven's neighborhoods are typically too dense to allow for side yards and driveways, so the initiative calls for selling some 683 “sliver” lots — parcels that do not conform to building requirements — to adjacent homeowners for landscaping or conversion into driveways.

Ideally, playgrounds, “pocket parks,” lawns and gardens will replace dilapidated structures in hard-pressed neighborhoods like Newhallville, the Hill and Fair Haven. The initiative will also play a key role when New Haven updates its badly outdated master plan. Highlights of the initiative include:

  • the declaration of a state of emergency, under which the city waived bidding requirements and moved forward more quickly in hiring contractors to demolish city-owned properties;

  • the dissolution of the Office of Housing and Neighborhood Development. The 10 city departments formerly responsible for resolving the blighted housing problem were consolidated into The Livable City Initiative Bureau which a newly appointed “housing czar” oversees;

  • privatization of loan assistance to homeowners and potential buyers;

  • transfer of 50 city employees to the Livable City Initiative. Some have desks in police substations and work in teams with police, fire and other local officials, as well as residents, neighborhood groups and community development organizations; and

  • the hiring of three new lawyers for the Office of Corporation Counsel, and the reassignment of a fourth to the office. Their primary charge is to pursue timely acquisitions and land dispositions.

In the first six months of the initiative, some 70 blighted structures were torn down, and residents got involved in planting new flowering trees.

Tearing down a single structure used to take 10 months and cost $20,000. Now it takes about a month, and the cost is expected to be dramatically reduced if Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection allows the waste to be deposited in a local landfill rather than carted out of state for incineration.

DeStefano says local residents and state legislators support the steps taken in the initiative.

“We've had pretty good support, because these steps are predicated on citizen involvement and (home) ownership, and because people want to feel hopeful.”