HARTFORD – Most of the candidates looking to be Hartford’s next mayor agreed Tuesday that they would try to pressure neighboring suburbs to offer more affordable housing and services for the homeless.

They offered differing plans, though, on how they would go about addressing housing issues and homelessness within the capital city.

Journey Home and the League of Women Voters of Greater Hartford hosted a candidate forum Tuesday at the Lyceum focused specifically on housing and homelessness. 

Four Democratic hopefuls – Arunan Arulampalam, Sen. John Fonfara, former senator and judge Eric Coleman, and city councilman Nick Lebron – were joined by Republican candidate Mike McGarry and petitioning candidates J. Stan McCauley and Giselle Jacobs.

Tracy Funnye also participated in the forum, although organizers said after the event that they don’t think she has qualified for the ballot.

McGarry was the only candidate to regularly disagree with his opponents, repeatedly calling himself a “stick in the mud.”

The other candidates laid out a similar view of the problem: Hartford does not have enough affordable housing to meet residents’ needs, a problem compounded by the fact that many rental properties are owned by slum lords. 

Candidates also blamed surrounding towns for failing to build enough affordable housing or offering adequate services for the homeless. Many of those homeless people ultimately come to Hartford for help, the candidates all said.

They offered different views on how they’d tackle those problems, though.

Arulampalam, the Democratic Party-endorsed candidate, touted his work with both the Department of Consumer Protection and the Hartford Land Bank. 

He said he’d use existing legal resources to go after neglectful landlords, as he did with the DCP, and turn those properties over to Hartford residents. The Hartford Land Bank acquires vacant properties, rehabilitates them, and sells them. 

“The core of our lack of affordability isn’t that we don’t have enough government programs for affordable housing, it’s that the history and economics of the city are set up to screw the residents of the city,” he said.

Fonfara said his priority would be to focus on growing jobs in the city to help residents grow their income. He said poverty is consolidated in too many neighborhoods and criticized past mayors for trying to address the problems that result from that, not the root cause.

“Concentrated poverty begets more poverty,” he said. “It just doesn’t house a lot of poor people, it grows poverty.”

He also said he supported a new law this past session that will provide more protections for tenants.

Coleman also said his economic plan seeks to improve affordable housing in the city, including having the city acting as a developer if needed.

He said improving housing inventory would give tenants more options, an incentive for landlords to keep rents down and maintain their properties. Coleman also expressed concern that developers had too much say in how affordable housing is planned and built.

“In recent years, developers have put forward their vision of what affordable housing is without any consideration for what affordable housing means, in this case to the residents of the city of Hartford,” he said.

Lebron also said he would go after bad landlords, pledging to compile and release a list of the 40 landlords with the most complaints.

He also said he would try to make it easier for nonprofit service providers to apply for grants to provide housing support and to assist the homeless. Lebron said that would free up staff time and make it easier for smaller nonprofit providers to compete.

“Oftentimes you’re answering the same question over and over and over and over again,” Lebron said. “We need to take that time away, and that human capital away, from spending time and paperwork and spending more time on people.”

Fonfara, Coleman, and Lebron have all submitted petitions to challenge Arulampalam for the Democratic nomination in the Sept. 12 primary. 

McCauley, meanwhile, pointed the blame at the Hartford Housing Authority. He said he’d start with reforming the agency to make sure it addresses Hartford’s needs.

“Where is the intentionality of implementing the plan?” he asked. McCauley also said he’d prioritize the needs of the homeless and neediest Hartford residents over building affordable housing that people not living in the city could also purchase.

“The city is not being gentrified, it’s being colonized,” McCauley said.

Jacobs, who was once homeless herself, said her priority would be to make sure nonprofits are working together to solve the problem, not competing. She’d also have her staff talk with residents to make sure they received the support they needed.

“They have quite a story to tell,” she said. 

McGarry, meanwhile, admitted he didn’t have big solutions but also routinely said those offered by his opponents wouldn’t work.

“When you take from one person and give to another, you cause a problem,” McGarry said. “And it looks to me like no matter what you do on the housing, that’s exactly what it is.”

He said the city’s tax structure gives a tax credit to the owners of one- to three-unit homes, which means that businesses and larger residential owners are subsidizing homeowners.

He also said the city doesn’t have enough inspectors, particularly those willing to work with property owners on solutions before citing them for violations.

Funnye largely agreed with most of the candidates, saying the city needed to do a better job getting people out of transitional housing and into permanent homes to free up shelter space for the homeless.

She left soon after the forum and was unavailable to answer questions about her candidacy.

The forum featured a tense exchange when Jacobs questioned whether Arulampalam would serve residents because he accepted donations from developers.

“We need to have a mayor that we can trust, that’s unbought, that’s unbossed and that’s going to tend to the residents’ needs without someone else being in their pockets and pulling the strings,” she said.

Arulampalam pushed back and defended his record on going after slum lords.

“I’ve been really vocal on this campaign trail that I want to make an example out of slum lords, that I want to go after the biggest slumlords and take them down,” he said.