Column: “Hello, Neighbor”

By Bobbi Eggers

As I drive around Greenwich, the Greenwich Town Party signs popping up along with the daffodils. What a generous gift to our community to have this amazing celebration every year. That plus the Greenwich Wine + Food Festival, the Greenwich International Film Festival, the Best of Greenwich, Greenwich Restaurant Week and let’s not forget our Greenwich’s Best Bartender Contest, all celebrating our fine, friendly, neighborly life in Greenwich. 

Our neighborhoods are not just highway exit signs. Each has a distinct personality- Cos Cob is uniquely different from Riverside, which is different from Byram or Old Greenwich or Backcountry. It’s one of the many things that makes Greenwich so very special. I love these neighborhoods and everyone has their favorite coffee shop or school principal or gym.

We’re all eager to keep our neighborhoods thriving and to support our schools to be the very best they can be.  Let’s be honest, as the housing market lags and some store fronts post “For Rent” signs in the windows, we too need to attract new people and businesses here. Times change. The pendulum swings. Young incoming people’s desires are different from what came before them. Now many of them want an international community, more diverse schools, physical activities and easy access to an urban area or a vibrant downtown.

So here’s the good news: Greenwich is, in fact, a tremendously diverse international mix of people from all economic levels. Not everyone knows what a mixed bag we are and they should. It makes Greenwich so much more interesting and appealing to more people. I was surprised when we were fundraising for the Greenwich Pool in Byram Park that a lot of Greenwich residents didn’t know there has always been a community pool, accessible with your Beach Pass. They didn’t know that there is an institutional bakery in town (ahhh…the heavenly smell of baking bread at certain times of the day.) Many people were surprised at the number of subsidized lunches in our schools. Some were also surprised that we have affordable housing neighborhoods. (“Where!?”).

In fact, we have many different areas of affordable and middle income housing. The Greenwich Housing Authority has nearly 761 units in 15 different locations including home-ownership condominiums, scattered-site housing, various developments and Parsonage Cottage. They serve 2,574 people and they are actively working on creating more. HATG also provides 345 Section 8 housing vouchers which provides affordable housing in the private market.

Moving forward, the scope of the Housing Authority’s mission today is more broadly defined than the conventional notion of brick and mortar as the primary focus. The concepts of building and defining a sense of community, purpose, and personal growth are also an integral part of the Housing Authority’s role, helping residents to shape their lives productively. Through resident associations and with the help of professional staff and outside support agencies (e.g., CCI, Family Centers, The Greenwich Commission on Aging, Pathways, the Boys and Girls Club, etc.) residents are encouraged to learn, earn, manage and improve their lives. “We are partners with our residents,” says Tony Johnson, Executive Director of HATG. “We are committed to improving quality of life for them in so many aspects of their lives. Everyone wants to feel good about where they live and have a sense of pride of their homes and community.”

Now the Housing Authority is entering a new, very important next step into their future. Tony Johnson and Sam Romeo, Chair of the Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners and Terry Mardula, Deputy Director and COO of HATG, have just announced that they have obtained the permits to start building new units plus a major revitalization inside and out at Armstrong Court, with energy efficiency, new kitchens and bathrooms and a beautiful exterior. You will be pleasantly surprised when you see the architectural renderings. The HATG Board is very involved and supportive of these improvements and the future direction of the Authority. The Town of Greenwich does not fund these updates. There is some Federal funding in some of them, but largely it is self-funded. There are no federal dollars in Armstrong Court. That funding is through tax credit, private investment and debt financing. As part of the upcoming improvements, Wilbur Peck is about to renovate all their kitchens and bathrooms with new stainless steel appliances and granite counter tops. There are plans in the works to build exceptional Senior Housing at Vinci Gardens and an additional Seniors Facility at Armstrong Court, an important addition as our aging population grows. We need to strive to allow our lifelong Greenwich residents to maintain the life they have loved here for so many years. These options do exist in town now but the HATG is actively providing more.

Most importantly, our affordable housing communities are vibrant, friendly neighborhoods. “They are as much a part of Greenwich as Belle Haven.” Says Bobby Walker, Jr., CEO of the Boys and Girls Club.  “Neighbors socialize, look out for each other’s kids, older folks and children grow up together.” Mike Harris grew up in Wilbur Peck and is now the Assistant Boys’ Varsity and Strength/Conditioning Coach at Greens Farms Academy. “Growing up in Wilbur Peck was more than just neighbors. We were family. We all stuck together. Anytime I’d walk outside there would be 5-6 kids waiting to play basketball or we’d go to Bruce Park to throw a football around. We went to school together, we hung out together. That made my life so much better. I loved my friends, we stay in touch.”

But respect doesn’t always happen, let’s not kid ourselves. As a community, we have to move past that. To be valued is crucial to our well-being and ideally, HATG residents should feel like they are as much a part of our community as anyone and everyone else. That’s what neighbors are all about. We have lots of neighborhoods but we are one community.

As we take one giant leap into the future and rethink and reconsider, we also need to rename. The HATG deserves much more credit than its current name implies. The old-school term, “Housing Authority,” suggests negative imagery. We’re moving past that as they go through this vital rejuvenation and strive to make it possible for these neighborhoods to blend into the community. I have had the honor of working with them to rethink who they are, the benefits far beyond what they offer their residents, and place them into the future of Greenwich.

So say goodbye to the Greenwich Housing Authority and say, “Hello, neighbor.”

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