At 130,000 residents, New Haven, Connecticut is a small city, which makes its recent building boom especially notable. Over half-a-dozen luxury apartments have been built in under a decade, with more to come. Until now, the apartments were built on parking lots or old commercial space. But with the renovation of an old downtown hotel, New Haven will trade in affordable housing for high-end visitors.
The Hotel Duncan is filled with history. You can ride the oldest hand-operated elevator in Connecticut. It’s been running since 1917. The hotel announces its presence on Chapel Street with a distinctive, three-story-tall neon sign.
The Duncan has been a 19th century boarding house, a dorm for Yale Students, and until this month, a single room occupancy hotel (SRO). The hotel is one of the few affordable housing options left in downtown New Haven.
"I lived in New Haven all my life," said Dolly Harris, one of eight residents who still lived in the SRO when it closed for good on Veteran's Day.
She spoke to me in the lobby. There’s a black-and-white checkered floor, old upholstered armchairs. The hotel radiates a fading, shabby glamour. Dolly likes the Duncan. Her favorite part of living here?
"Sitting right here, looking at everybody coming in," she said.
Back in September, 39 residents lived here long-term. They paid by the week or the month, had their own rooms, and shared bathrooms or kitchens. Some had lived here for more than a decade.
Now, most of those residents have left. The hotel has a new owner, an out-of-towner from Chicago.
He plans to turn the Duncan into a high-end hotel for visitors to the city. He plans to keep the neon sign, the elevator, and as much of the old-world charm as he can. And if his other hotels are any indicator, he’ll also charge at least three times the current nightly rate.
The Duncan’s purchase – where low-income housing will be replaced with a high-end hotel – marks one of the clearest examples of gentrification in New Haven’s recent history.
But Ed Mattison, who serves as chair of the New Haven City Planning Commission, said it was just a matter of time.
"New Haven is flourishing, its downtown is doing very well. All sorts of people are moving into very expensive apartments," he said. He adds a question. "My goodness how can they afford them?"
The sale could have been a disaster for the residents of the Duncan: there are currently no city laws that protect SRO housing from development, or help residents transition to new housing. Instead, the hotel owners offered to pay for moving expenses, security deposits, and help the residents find new homes.
But Mattison says that residents’ new homes will be far away from where they used to live.
"A lot of people have [Social Security] or disability or they can work. And they can afford something," he said. "But if they want to stay in New Haven, they won't find it."
The market-rate for a studio apartment is $1100 a month, which is unaffordable for someone who lives off supplemental security income or disability – programs that usually pay between $700 a $1200 dollars a month. And to Mattison, that’s a bad thing.
"The problem of economic diversity in downtown is serious," he said. "We do not want this to be a monoculture of all the same kind of people taking the same train in the morning to New York or Stamford."
With the loss of the Duncan, New Haven has only one SRO building left. And housing experts all agree: SROs are a good option for single, low-income renters.
That’s prompted a reevaluation. Mayor Toni Harp recently announced that she’s planning to expand New Haven’s SRO housing stock, though it’s unclear when.
As for Dolly Harris, she’ll be moving to Fairhaven, a neighborhood a couple of miles from the hotel. It’s also a couple of miles from her church, right down the street from the Duncan.
She uses a cane, and I asked her if transportation will be more difficult for her, now that she’s further away from downtown.
"I have no problem with it. I take the bus anyways," she said.
And her church has a van that will pick her up at her new house on Sundays.
And Wednesdays for choir practice.