The Big and Small of Affordable Housing Solutions for Connecticut

in Editorials/Topic: Housing

With apologies to Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin – who half-seriously split all of human thought into foxes and hedgehogs – those who advocate for a variety of smaller ideas and those who embrace larger singular solutions – if ever there was a ‘hedgehog,’ it’s 8-30g, the state’s 30-year-old affordable housing statute, which grants developers a favorable appeals process if an application for an affordable housing project is rejected without sufficient cause.

Like a hedgehog with its quills, that statute gives developers near carte blanche to construct affordable housing in towns with less than 10% qualifying housing.

According to Michael Fogliano’s earlier back-of-the-envelope calculation, that threshold would require about 470 additional rent-restricted units in the Town of Old Lyme – if every unit qualifies as affordable – or as many 1500 units in developments of affordable and market rate apartments.

In other words, developers are given near carte blanche until they have constructed at the minimum 12 individual developments the size of the Hope Partnership project planned near I-95 Exit 70 or as many as 45 similar developments with a mix of price points.

To put that in perspective, The Sound at Gateway Commons – the housing development constructed near Costco in East Lyme and visible from I-95 – is a 280-unit development.

It’s no wonder that members of the newly formed Affordable Housing Committee in Old Lyme, apparently out-of-hand put aside the state goal of 10% housing.

Given the relative lack of progress in the 30 years since the law was first enacted by the Connecticut legislature – and recent talk by Gov. Ned Lamont of added penalties for towns that fail to comply – you have to wonder how the conversation would change for the better if a town like Old Lyme faced a more attainable threshold of say 100 units.

Not enough you say? Is 10% really too high a number?

It’s counter intuitive, I realize, but bear with me… and think of affordable housing less like a hedgehog – with your one big solution – and more like a fox who might happily bank that 100 units — that’s more than has been accomplished since 8-30g was put in place – and then set about finding other small solutions to make up the difference.

But here’s the key — a fox can’t go about believing that the point of constructing affordable housing is simply to construct affordable housing – that’s mistaking the means for the ends. And if we are honest, we need to acknowledge that the ends of affordable housing include much more than subsidizing housing for locals, for town employees and for the elderly.

And rather than just constructing new apartment complexes – now that we are thinking creatively – why not look also at policies that help older residents age in place, that offer opportunities for people out of the district to benefit from Old Lyme’s schools, policies that foster homeownership, and support young people coping with student debt: lowering property taxes, allowing for ADUs, restarting Open Choice in New London…

With the state Education Cost Sharing contribution to Old Lyme (the state’s carrot) dropping to a half or a third what it was a decade ago, and with goal of 8-30g already ineffective (the stick), the last thing we need (if anyone in Hartford is even thinking about this part of the state) is sharper quills.