New London housing resource center to end walk-in clients in bid to access parking lot

Nov. 20—NEW LONDON — A city-based housing resource center will soon close its offices to walk-in clients after twice failing to secure zoning approval for driveway and parking access to its own property.

Cathy Zall, executive director of the New London Housing Resource Center at 727 Bank St., announced Monday that as of Nov. 28, the group's offices will only be open to scheduled clients and staff, including those offering phone and video help to residents struggling to hold onto their residence though counseling and budgeting classes.

The center also will be closed on Saturdays, according to a sign on the organization's front door.

"We hoped to help people by providing New London residents with an initial access point to housing support," Zall said. "Ending this phase of our work at 727 Bank is a disappointment."

She said the change was prompted by more than a year of fruitlessly trying to gain proper permit approval from the Planning & Zoning Commission to access a rear parking lot.

She said access to those spaces was available via a nearby driveway for only a few months before an abutting property owner in late 2021 blocked that option and left the property "land locked."

"That meant employees and clients have parked on the street or in the public lot across from Garibaldi Square almost right since we opened," she said.

The organization as a workaround bought an adjacent lot at 18 Belden Court and set to work designing a zoning-compliant driveway. But the group's site plans, including a revamped version, were twice rejected by the commission by 4-3 votes, most recently on Nov. 2.

The rejections stem from the definition of the work the group does based on city zoning regulations. Zall said the commission deemed the organization's work as a "service," rather than "office" use, a distinction that determines how many parking spaces property owners must include on their grounds.

"Because we were seeing walk-in clients, our work was ruled a service use, like a shoe repair or dry-cleaning store," Zall said. "That meant we had to have 35 parking spaces available instead of the 23 we'd need under the office designation."

She said eliminating walk-ins will allow the group to re-apply to the commission as an office, though that means much of the in-person work done by its U.S. Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, counseling agency will also be lost at the location.

Zall said HUD counseling is typically reserved for very specific clients, such as someone looking to buy a two-family home and rent out a portion of the property as opposed to someone looking for help in avoiding apartment eviction. She said federal guidelines require a HUD agency to set aside certain hours for walk-in clients.

"That's why we're moving quickly and working with (Mayor Michael Passero) to find a new location for the HUD work," she said.

During an Oct. 19 public hearing on the group's amended driveway site plan — the first was rejected in February — several residents voiced their opposition to the proposal, though their arguments largely revolved around non-zoning issues, including accusations of increased drug sales, loitering and petty crime near the facility, according to meeting minutes.

Other speakers noted the alleged incidents occurred when the center, which is not a homeless shelter, was closed for the day.

Zall said the rare homeless person who mistakenly came to the center was quickly redirected to a more appropriate facility.

Ronna Stuller, a commission member who twice voted in favor of the center's site plan, said she hopes the center conversations will lead to deeper conversations on zoning language, specifically the difference in service and office designations.

"Why is an attorney's office different than a tax preparer, or a physician's office than a travel agent when the actual interaction with customers or clients is comparable?" she asked.

The center opened in early 2021 just as special state housing program funding was being made available to residents hit hard by COVID-19. That money, through myHomeCT and UniteCT, was offered to homeowners and renters having difficulty paying their mortgages or meeting monthly rent payments.

"We had people coming in having difficulty in uploading documents or filling out applications," Zall said. "These were residents facing foreclosure or eviction, housed individuals who needed help."

Zall said the number of clients the group sees has dropped to about 25 a week with most others being helped by phone or video chats.

"We plan on having hand-outs ready for anyone that walks in directing to State Pier Road," she said referring to the location of the Homeless Hospitality Center, the homeless shelter she oversees. "And we'll encourage them to call us or set up an appointment. I don't know if we'll succeed getting approval for a new driveway by not taking walk-ins, but I know we've failed twice now by doing it."