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Citizens of Hartford and Their Struggle for Housing

Hartford has a long history of issues concerning public housing that began in the early 20th century and continue to affect citizens today. On Wednesday evening, the Thomas J. Dodd Center hosted a panel discussion for a new exhibit named, “From Civil Rights to Human Rights: African American, Puerto Rican & West Indian Housing Struggles in Hartford County, Connecticut, 1940-2019.”

The exhibit presents research done by students led by Dr. Fiona Vernal, associate professor of history and Africana studies, that investigates the issues surrounding access to public housing and related discrimination for Hartford citizens.

The exhibit also touches upon The Great Migration, where millions of African-Americans moved from southern areas of the country to urban areas in the north and Midwest, and the effects of the movement on future generations.

“[I wanted to] develop an exhibition that would engage how the framing of human rights have changed over the years and the framing of housing is not just a civil right, but a human right,” Vernal said.

During the panel discussion, Annette Sanderson, the executive director of the Housing Authority of the City of Hartford, emphasized how there isn’t enough affordable housing in Hartford. When a wait list for public housing was opened for a mere four days in the past year, 13,000 applications were received for 700 spots, according to Sanderson. Other panelists shared stories of citizens in poor living conditions, ranging from living in their cars to dealing with rat infestations.

“I think it’s important to consider what we can do as citizens…like sharing these stories and also talk about how these issues happening in Hartford are also occurring across the nation in other cities,” Mara Tu, a fourth-semester environmental science and urban and community studies double major, said.

The panelists were all residents of Hartford and they covered a variety of topics ranging from redlining to migration. One topic that resonated well with the audience was the discussion on education inequality, specifically in reference to how the quality of housing can affect one’s access to a decent education.

“I’m really interested in education and education policy and, like they said in the panel, where you live immediately affects your education,” Laura Bedoya, a fourth-semester political science and Latin American studies double major, said.

The students who were recruited for the project came from a variety of backgrounds and majors, like political science, chemistry and history. Some students had a personal interest in the project, while others didn’t realize how important the topic was until they began their research.

“I was interested in the feature of African-American migrations to Hartford because that’s how my family ended up here in Connecticut. My grandfather’s oldest brother moved up here and began working on tobacco farms until he finally settled in the greater Hartford area,” Chloe Murphy, a fourth-semester Africana studies major, said. “I wanted to explore the further implications of housing segregation…and what are the generational effects of that and what their descendants look like now in terms of their housing situation.”

Vernal and her students are planning on bringing the exhibition to Hartford in the future to further build upon the amount of information they can provide.

“We’re hoping that we can get some of the tenants and feature those as individual panels and get images of these housing code violations and use that exhibition as part of that organizing to say this is an outrage and people should not be allowed to live this way,” Vernal said.

Brandon Barzola

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