Salim Furth (Courtesy of Salim Furth)

Salim Furth Takes 5 Questions on Zoning and Housing

Salim Furth, who is the director of the Urbanity Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, recently spoke with CT Examiner about housing and zoning issues in Connecticut. He is a senior researcher specializing in macroeconomic trends and policies. With economist Emily Hamilton, he recently published an op-ed on housing affordability in Connecticut. 

This is the second in a series of interviews on housing and zoning in Connecticut. The first is available here.

1. What should the state’s role be in providing affordability for Connecticut residents?

There is a supply side and a demand side — the demand side is trickier. In that case the state says there are people who are too poor to afford decent housing throughout our state, and even in an open market with lots of construction they just can’t pay what it costs. On the demand side, what economics says is it’s best to support people’s incomes rather than supporting housing specifically and let things shake out. Second best, there are vouchers and things like that giving people real options in letting them choose what’s best for themselves and their families. 

But on the supply side, the state’s real restrictions are what makes Connecticut different from a lot of other states — the  prices are sky high, not just for mansions and really nice houses but also for pretty modest things and that’s basically a supply side result.

The main thing they can do is ensure that people have the ability to provide housing to working people, this is something the market is really good at providing and if that’s not happening, that’s a dysfunction of the norm. 

2. How can we better integrate Connecticut?

I think there are two regularities in housing and zoning that I would say are pretty strongly related to racial integration. The first is whether an area allows zoning of multifamily housing. The basic mechanics here are that non-whites are much more likely to be renters than whites. The number I carry around in my head is about two thirds of white households are homeowners and about two thirds of Black and Hispanic households are renters. Multifamily housing is much more likely to be rented and single family housing is much likely to be owned. It’s not surprising to think of it as a segmented market. Most people who are renters aren’t looking to become homeowners and vice versa. Most people are staying in their segment.

The other regularity is the era in which housing was built seems to have a lot to do with housing communities today. If you look at all the metro areas in the US, what jumps out at you is that all the ones near the top were the ones that were recipients of the Great Migration, the enormous movement of African Americans from the South where they moved from rural situations into southern towns and then to the northern big cities. These were big factory cities that were at the peak of their powers during the 20th century when this movement was taking place — Detroit, Chicago but also in New York, L.A. — and these cities were extremely segregated. It wasn’t due to zoning but it was very clear to everyone where the lines were. You were not welcome on the other side of this line. It’s kind of easy to imagine that once a neighborhood is built out and has a population, it’s harder to change. 

If you look at the cities with the least segregation, it’s the places that were built more recently — after the cutoff date of the Civil Rights Act and the follow up legislation. If you look at newer cities — like Phoenix, or Minneapolis which was more of a new city and wasn’t that big a part of the Great Migration — they are more integrated. 

You can’t kind of go back and rewrite history but it’s a question of if we build a lot of housing now, would it be integrated? If you stick one housing unit into an existing area where the neighbors are all white, there’s a good chance that an African American family would feel a little bit less comfortable there. But if you’re building a lot of new housing, new neighborhoods or new apartment buildings in clusters, it could look like the ‘new city’ phenomenon where stuff that’s built today is a lot less segregated than stuff that was built a few years ago. Housing reflects its era to some extent — and I’m sure there are counterexamples — but there is at least some sense of the neighborhood reflecting the year in which it was built. It’s all contextual, but generally I expect stuff to come today to be more integrated than something built years ago. 

3. Where should Connecticut prioritize the construction of Affordable housing?

I would say allowing new construction in lots of different places and then seeing where the market guides [the housing] is a lot better than kind of running into the political sausage-making machine where you’re going to end up with places that have the most political pull get the outcomes that they want. You’ll get some employer who wants the housing near them and they get it, and some rich community that doesn’t want the housing near them and so they won’t get it. We’re much more suspicious of a political process of deciding when it should be that market process that allows some projects — and see what happens.

The 8-30g statute is pretty geographically neutral statewide but something like that gives us two weaknesses. One is it forces developers to be the bad guys. Developers in most places that I’ve worked are willing to kind of play hardball against a municipality if they don’t think they’re going to work there again.

Also, the inclusionary zoning set-aside, they’re great for those who receive them but they function as a tax on [area] development. Most of the research on inclusionary zoning shows it’s pretty ineffective — either it doesn’t produce many units or it raises prices or both. Generally just giving property owners more rights to build housing on their own land is going to mean you’re going to have the most secure way of getting the housing in the right places. 

4. Are towns obligated to provide housing for people of all income levels? 

I’m going to frame the question as what is that towns do and what are they for? 

The word obligated is tricky. Towns are obligated to do what the states allow them to do and within that framework what their voters approve. They aren’t independent actors, they’re democratic institutions. They’re creations of their state. What is the moral obligation of a civic institution?

What do towns control? Land use, schools towns should allow land use such that it’s reasonable that someone who wants to serve a potential low income resident can do so. Towns shouldn’t be erecting barriers to a developer who wants to build relatively affordable housing and can’t.  

5. Should Connecticut expand the use of as-of-right decision-making at the local level?

Politics does not treat people equally. Property rights has become almost a rich person’s right. Rich people are really good at defending their property. They hire lawyers and they lobby. They can get access if they need protection for their property. As-of-right really verifies the boundaries of property rights.

Hearings are very gray areas where if you promise that your development is going to be full of people who ‘fit the neighborhood character’ and show that people just like you are going to move in at these price points, then they’ll approve you. If you’re building something that’s pitched to a different demographic, they won’t approve you.

The hearings are designed to be unfair in the sense that they do not treat everyone or every proposal the same. At a hearing you’re bringing in a very selective group, but you’re not bringing in people who don’t know that this has been proposed, or don’t feel like they have the voice that can command respect in a public hearing of their neighbors, so it’s a very selective group, clearly whiter, older and more home owner-ly than the public at large. So, it’s not at all the case that it’s more democratic — it is more participatory but ‘selective participatory.’

If we have hearings-based process, we are knowingly giving discretionary power to a group of neighborhood defenders, people who are longtime residents who care, and that’s a positive, but who stereotypically want the neighborhood to remain the same. I think we should be pretty cautious about giving discretionary power to a group of people like that.

This is especially true of multifamily developments. How do you get it past the hearing board? You say it’s going to be really fancy and will pay lots of property tax. 

As a national observer, I’m engaged in this all over the country. What struck me in Connecticut is a level of denial that I don’t encounter in a lot of other places. California has a worse problem but at least people there argue the solutions. There’s a sort of ‘nothing to see here, move along’ that seems unique to me in Connecticut, it’s a different vibe. S.B. 1024 in its ‘skinny version’ is not that radical … it contains modest changes that will make a real difference, it’s not transformative but it’s being treated as if it’s the end of the world — it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re abolishing Connecticut.’

Latest from Cate Hewitt