At a CT Co-Op, Unique Model Keeps Housing Affordable

January 4, 2024 - by Ginny Monk, CT Mirror

Sonjia Gomes had just given birth to her daughter when she saw a news story about a house fire on the television screen in her hospital room.

When the footage featured a shot of smoke engulfing the building, Gomes realized it was her house. On that day, more than 30 years ago, she and her infant became homeless.

But after about nine months of staying in temporary homes, Gomes found refuge in a townhouse-style unit in a development that had just opened, after seeing an advertisement about the affordable housing option.

The home was part of a Waterbury co-op, a corporation that allows residents to buy shares in the housing development so they can take votes on how the property should be managed. The units were built on property owned by a land trust, in a unique partnership that means land costs can stay low.

Gomes moved into her unit in 1991, the year the Brookside Housing Cooperatives was founded.

“I don’t think I would want to live somewhere else, as a single person,” Gomes said. “I wouldn’t want to live in a house, I would feel uncomfortable. I feel like I’m surrounded by people that care.”

It was and remains a unique structure to guarantee housing affordability. Brookside has 102 units that operate under six co-ops. They’re self-governed and self-managed. Tenants meet monthly to discuss operations and vote on major property management decisions.

Monthly costs stay between about $500 to $750, even for some of the larger units with up to four bedrooms. The goal is for families to move in and save up enough money for a down payment on a new home.

Gomes lived there for about 12 years, then bought a house. After she was left alone when her mother died, she decided to move back. She’s since been at Brookside for 13 years and is president of her co-op.

This allows her to age in a place she feels safe and comfortable, with a sense of community.

“We all get along, we can communicate,” Gomes said of the Brookside community. “There’s no fussing, no fight, none of that. We don’t always agree on everything when it comes time for meetings. But we work it out, we look out for one another.”

Preserving affordability

The land trust is key to preserving affordability since the organization agrees to use the land exclusively for permanently affordable housing. Residents buy shares in the co-op corporations, which gives them both the right to vote and the right to live in the homes.

The Naugatuck Valley Project owns the land and keeps it off the market so land costs don’t go up. New residents put down about $2,000 when they move in, although the amount can vary based on the building within the development. That money goes into an account that accrues interest over time.

The co-ops can use the money for any big repairs that come up, and give the funds plus interest back to the residents when they move out. Often, it’s enough to cover a portion of the down payment or closing costs for a house, co-op leaders said.

The resale price is limited at a 2% annual increase.

Land trusts have historically been used to preserve land for environmental conservation, but in the 1980s, housing costs in Connecticut soared because of speculative real estate practices, according to research.

Speculative real estate is the business practice of purchasing land in the hopes that it appreciates in value. It’s driven up housing costs across the country, particularly in the early 2000s, before the Great Recession. The land trust’s interest in housing started in part because of these rising costs.

One of the first housing land trusts in the country was formed in the 1970s in Massachusetts. Connecticut’s first was formed in Norwich in 1986.

Marianne Maloney, a former resident at the Waterbury co-op, said she would never have been able to afford an apartment large enough for herself and her four children without the land trust keeping costs down. She got divorced when her kids were young, and her teacher salary left her with little left each month after paying rent.

Maloney was one of the people who first encouraged the Naugatuck Valley Project to get involved in housing.

“There were families where generations of that family had worked at Uniroyal [formerly the United States Rubber Company.] They didn’t know anything else. And there really was no place else to turn. There was no other major employer in Naugatuck,” Maloney said. “So I think there were a lot of people who were hurting for decent housing, not just because the housing stock had deteriorated, but because the jobs weren’t good-paying jobs.”


The project started in conjunction with labor union organizing. The country had more labor unions at the time, which often worked hand-in-hand with tenant unions to demand lower rent costs or improvements on housing conditions. In some cases, labor unions even built housing for their members.

When Brookside was founded, affordability was an issue. But many members were more concerned about housing conditions and moved from poorly kept properties in Waterbury and Watertown, said Maloney.

Many of the original organizers of Brookside came from a tenant union in Waterbury apartments, including Evelyn Lush. Lush became one of the leaders of a tenants union that fought against rent increases and argued for repairs at the complex.

She was one of the co-founders of the Brookside Housing Cooperatives and died in October.

At the start, many of the potential tenants couldn’t make the down payment required to live at Brookside. So, organizers in conjunction with the Naugatuck Valley Project decided to allow “sweat equity,” or offering labor instead of cash payments.

Alphonso Coles, another one of the first Brookside residents, said tenants initially tried to install insulation. But, that didn’t really work out.

“At some point, I guess they realized we weren’t doing such a great job of that,” Coles said, of installing insulation. “And then we started painting, which was better, I guess.”

He still lives at Brookside and is treasurer of his co-op.

How it works

Alex Koloktronis, director of the Naugatuck Valley Project, said he thinks the co-op could be used as a model for affordable housing in other parts of the state. The country is grappling with an affordable housing crisis.

Connecticut lacks more than 92,500 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest-income renters, according to a recent estimate.

Brookside is larger than most other housing co-ops, Koloktronis said, and unique because of the land trust structure alongside the six co-ops.

“Could it happen again?,” Maloney said. “Yes, but you would need an organization like NVP. Could it be done on a much smaller scale? Absolutely.”

At Brookside, residents pay carrying charges each month to help cover costs of maintenance in the apartments and upkeep in the common areas. They take turns holding leadership positions and meet monthly to make big decisions.

Recently, Gomes’ co-op decided to put up fencing to keep animals out of the complex. Several other co-ops quickly followed suit.

Leadership from each co-op also meets to keep communication and coordination between the cooperatives.

“There’s a lot of really great things about being in a co-op,” Coles said. “One of course being that, it’s definitely cheaper. But it’s more work. One of the requirements for being here is that you have to hold office. People have to know that upfront that at some point, they’re going to be called on to do something.”

He said that the best thing about living at Brookside is the protection against sudden rent increases and the stability.

“I’m not a person that was ever really wanting to buy a house,” Coles said. “But to me, this is like the next best thing really, because I’m here this is kind of like my castle.”

Members hire professionals for certain jobs, but residents sometimes do the work themselves. For example, members learn how to replace their own window screens to save the co-op money.

Co-ops also interview and select applicants to live there when vacancies come open, which sometimes includes relatives of existing tenants. It helps build a sense of community, Gomes and Coles said.

On one recent day, Gomes greeted her niece as she walked across the parking lot, pointing out which building was hers. And her daughter — the one who became briefly homeless the day she was born — now lives just a few doors down from Gomes, at Brookside.

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