Carol Martin (Courtesy of Affordable Housing Alliance)

Carol Martin Explains Shuttering of Thirty-Nine-Year-Old Affordable Housing Alliance

After 39 years, the Affordable Housing Alliance, formerly known as the Connecticut Housing Coalition, is dissolving as an organization, leaving questions and pointing to new directions to solve Connecticut’s housing inequities. 

“At AHA, for over 30 years we took many steps towards increasing opportunity in our State. Unfortunately, we have come to realize that the challenges we have been wrestling with now require much larger resources than what we were able to assemble,” explained Carol Martin, president of the board, in a June 29 letter announcing the decision. 

The organization was founded in 1981 with a mission to “lead Connecticut’s housing industry in growing affordable and equitable communities.” The idea was to create a consistent approach to affordable housing in the state through “education, training and the building of networks among about 250 member organizations that included “nonprofit and private developers and owners, housing services agencies, professional service providers, advocates, and other diverse housing practitioners.”

Martin said the organization was stepping aside to create space for state leaders, financial institutions, philanthropic organizations, business foundations and others to “collectively intensify and direct the concerted local efforts that are needed to close the gap and [increase] opportunity through housing choice in each and every county of our State.”

Financial survival as a nonprofit organization was a central problem for the alliance, Martin said. 

“It’s the ‘nonprofit teeter totter’ of grants and state philanthropic organizations. Since my tenure here, it’s always been a struggle to just get enough money in the doors to be able to hire the right contractors  and the right employees with the right skill sets to survive, and ultimately that platform really doesn’t work long term,” said Martin, who was voted in as president of the board in June 2018. “If you don’t have resources, it’s hard to lead. So we were on the slippery slope that any nonprofit is on. Although it’s sad, we are not going to be the last nonprofit to close our doors.”

Martin said she had proposed suspending operations for six months or a year to provide time to find investors and to reestablish the organization’s finances.

“[The way] we had operated in the past clearly was not how we would operate in the future if we wanted to continue,” she said. “I thought it might lead to some opportunities for some grant funds, not year-to-year grants, but grant funds that would be out three or four years, to actually bring about the change you need.” 

The other proposal was to wind up and dissolve the organization, which the board voted to approve.

“The vote was six to five, it was a very hard and close vote,” she said. “The folks that wanted to dissolve felt and advocated and believed that the organization had lost its predominance in the state.”

A low response rate to a call for donations in mid-February was a factor in some board members’ decisions, Martin said. 

“Some of the directors thought that the members’ lack of willingness to help us through these tough times meant that we really weren’t too important to our members,” she said.

It became clear the organization needed to reinvent itself, she said. 

“The conversations around were how there needs to be something bigger and bolder and it wasn’t something that we felt we could morph ourselves into,” Martin said. 

In 1989, the Connecticut General Assembly created the Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Act, 8-30g, which requires municipalities with less than 10 percent affordable housing to prove that the rejection of a project proposal is necessary to protect public health and safety. 

Although it is controversial, the law has allowed some affordable units to be built, Martin said. 

“We have one statute, that one statute whether it’s perfect, it’s terrible, it has definitely caused communities to accept affordable housing and had it not been there, those units would have never gotten created. Although it’s painful and every project is not the perfect place or people feel there’s too many units on the site —  all the negativity associated with 8-30g — but 8-30g has created quality affordable housing in the state,” she said. 

Martin said that the problem is that the state only has one statute addressing affordable housing and that is not enough.

“Could we tweak it? If we were going to tweak it, we should probably make it better. But I would push back and say we need another statute, after 30 years, “ she said. “We need a statute that helps expand affordable housing.”

Instead of creating affordable housing in a town-by-town model, the solution has to be regional or statewide, Martin said 

“The long and short of it is there are 169 separate communities acting as separate communities designed to retain control and keep things as they are. Frankly, that doesn’t work anymore. It’s bankrupting the state and causing a terrible imbalance in inequities between communities,” she said. “It’s got to be broad sector.”

Nevertheless, Martin said, the first step is local action with residents of each town taking on advocacy and education.

“The movement has to come from local control turning into local action and getting folks to understand the link between affordable housing and how important it is to every single community,” she said. “And more importantly, how it links with better health outcomes, better educational outcomes, better jobs, attracting business back to Connecticut, all things that other sectors of the state have to get involved with.”

In her letter, she suggested a think tank style group to “team up and create a blueprint for what lies ahead in terms of affordable housing policy, development, financing, and operations.”

Martin said the movement toward statewide affordable housing will take another 30 years.

“It’s not something that’s going to happen in two or three years but it has to start today,” she said.