Hales Court construction amounts to 'musical homes' for some families
Published 7:24 am, Thursday, July 22, 2010
From the stoop of her home, Carmen Velastegui gazes past the SUV parked in her front yard, over her dusty driveway, and across the street to her two mailboxes.
"The electricity, water, telephone and gas bills get sent to number 33," she explains, nodding to the box on the left. "The rest are sent to 45. We're waiting to see where we're going to stay."
Velastegui's quandary is shared by several Hales Court residents. Until last summer, she lived with her husband and daughter at 45 Hales Court, a couple hundred feet up the street from where they now reside. That home was flattened last fall, when phase one of the Hales Court construction project began. So the Westport Housing Authority moved them into an empty house down the street.
Now, with the project's second phase set to begin in September, their 33 Hales Court home is slated for demolition, too. The Velasteguis will relocate again, possibly back into 45 Hales Court, which, along with 34 other housing units there, is currently under
construction. It should be ready in the next two months.
"And everything will be brand new, and it's going to be beautiful," Velastegui says.
While the $25.2 million Hales Court construction project will ultimately bring 38 new affordable housing units to Westport -- by December 2011, officials project -- in the meantime, it's squeezing the town's limited supply of low-income housing. In three stages, the 40 homes of Hales Court are being leveled to make way for newer -- and more -- homes.
The demolitions have forced 17 Hales Court families to vacate their homes, says Carol Martin, director of the Westport Housing Authority. The good news: more than half of them have moved into the private rental market, a triumph for the housing authority, which has a 250-name waiting list for openings at Hales Court.
But six of those 17 families, like the Velasteguis, continue to rely on the housing authority, and have been funneled into openings during the past year amidst the shrunken network of affordable homes. The process has the families forgoing some amenities, but it's also reminding them why living in Westport can be special.
What Velastegui most likes about Hales Court, she says, is the sense of security it affords her. To make her point, she gestures at a fertilizer spreader, propped against a telephone pole in the front corner of her yard. She's not sure who it belongs to, she says, but the fact that no one has taken it shows the respect for property that pervades the neighborhood. Asked how long the spreader has lingered there, she estimates more than four months.
She then recalls how, while unloading groceries on a recent evening, she forgot to shut her car's door when she went inside. In the morning, her neighbor knocked on her front door to inform her.
"If I was in some other places, with more traffic," she says, her voice trailing into silence. "In here, I cannot complain. I've never lost anything."
The Velasteguis arrived at Hales Court in 2003, following a brief stint in Bridgeport, which is where Carmen Velastegui's sister resides. Before Bridgeport, the family lived in a suburban town in Maryland, about halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. When they arrived at Hales Court, the leafy, residential atmosphere reminded her of Maryland, which made her happy. There was only one difference.
"The ocean there was two-and-a-half hours away," she says. "And here, it's just around the corner."
Velastegui's upbeat attitude has her taking the current construction process in stride. Because 33 Hales Court abuts the construction site, giant trucks frequently need to access cement blocks and other tools located just beside her yard. They use her driveway. So the family now parks its three cars across the front lawn.
"We are fine like this," Velastegui says. "We're not interested in the grass. We know it will be gone soon."
The construction site, about the size of a football field, is so dense with activity that it resembles a team of engineers speedily setting up a colony.
Does living beside the constant banging of backhoes, nail guns and cement trucks get tiring?
In a way, yes.
"It's like therapy," Velastegui says. "I almost fall asleep. When I hear the beep, beep, beep of the trucks in the morning, I get out because otherwise I'll fall asleep."
When the project is finished, there will be a new community center with Internet access for residents and offices for the housing authority. Velastegui is excited because she won't have to subscribe to an Internet provider anymore. And she thinks the center will be helpful for young families.
But the construction will also establish those 38 new homes -- and with them, 38 new neighbors to the Hales Court community. This has some residents of Hales Court anxious, Velastegui says. They wonder, what if the new residents make bad neighbors?
But she's not concerned.
"I don't want to think that way," she says. "I was thinking, if I move somewhere, will people think that way about me? There are a lot of people out there who need a place to live. And if they put me in some place, then I'll be very happy."
She does have one request.
"Just not a neighbor who smokes," she says. "And no cats, because I have asthma."