A More Collaborative Approach to Affordable Housing

No one disputes that affordable housing is an important issue. Job growth, our changing demographics, and economic diversity all depend on a variety of housing. The zoning reform conversation we are having is worth having and long overdue. I agree, at least in concept, with many of the Desegregate CT proposals such as Accessory Dwelling Units, Transit Orientated Development, Main Streets, and Form Based zoning codes. They are mainstream planning concepts that have been around for years. In fact, many towns have already implemented local variations of the proposals.

While the state does have a legitimate interest in promoting affordable housing, it should be taking a collaborative approach with municipalities by providing technical assistance, incentives, and funding for infrastructure. Instead, it is attempting a power grab by trying to usurp local control and silence the local voices that are in the best position to develop and implement these policies. That the state proposals have one-size-fits-all prescriptive language and are difficult to modify once adopted are strong arguments to keep zoning local.

Towns need to be given time to complete the 8-30(j) affordable housing plan process. The plans are due next year. Short-circuiting this process with state preemption of local zoning, at this time, is clearly premature. Sure, this is a slower incremental approach to rolling back supply restrictions on housing than sweeping state regulation, but it is preferable.

The fair share housing proposal sounds simple enough. Every town has to provide its fair share of regional affordable housing.  But, as with every regulation, the devil is in the details, and the law of unintended consequences holds. The fair share plan assigns a startling amount, actually an impossible amount, of affordable housing units that each town has to build over 10 years. Any interested party can judicially enforce this allocation. With the proposed expansion of housing authority jurisdiction and a flood of federal public housing dollars, a perfect storm of out-of-scale poorly planned developments and lawsuits is almost certain. One can only imagine the compliance nightmare and drain on municipal budgets that will ensue.

Why aren’t we talking about reform of the existing affordable housing law, 8-30(g)? It has several serious defects, which have eroded support for affordable housing construction. The 10% affordable housing target is both arbitrary and unattainable, making towns the perpetual target for 8-30(g) developers, no matter how thoughtfully they plan. The definition of “affordable housing” is flawed and the economics of inclusionary zoning 8-30(g) have been accurately described as a “free lunch strategy”. The law does not magically create below market units. The developers do not pay for them, market rate renters do. They’re the ones who end up subsidizing the lucky few who get an “affordable” unit. The scheme is essentially a tax on market-rate housing. Additionally, the inclusionary requirement ends up favoring big projects over smaller ones – “real-estate deals” instead of “neighborhood place-making.”  We also have to consider if tying the working poor to a subsidized unit, as opposed to providing a mobile housing voucher, limits the ability to pursue better opportunities elsewhere.

As bad as redlining was, and it was bad, a terrible injustice; the failure to educate black and brown kids was worse. To this day, we still see those resisting proven education innovations and reforms while protecting a system that has failed generations. Why are they being denied the school choice affluent white kids enjoy?  Incredibly, the Stamford Charter School for Excellence (one of the highest performing schools in the state) had to drop its pre-k program so it could add a 6th grade. The state’s failure to fund the Danbury Prospect Charter School was a bitter disappointment to the Latino community. The reality is the district system, in 21st century cities, is obsolete. With a quality education you can live wherever you choose.

Along with education, the state needs to make sure people have opportunity. A strong business climate is a prerequisite to growing good, high paying jobs. Without a good job, housing will always be unaffordable. That makes addressing crushing unfunded liabilities essential. They have created a high tax burden and crowded out funding for essential services.    

Lastly, the state needs to be mindful, as Rep. Brandon McGee stated, in a recent Housing Committee public hearing, of the “individuals who are choosing to remain where they live” by reinvesting in and growing our cities. It was just last year that Gov. Lamont proposed ambitious plans to double the size of Connecticut’s cities. What happened? Architect Robert Orr noted, “It’s conceivable that more than 70% of New Haven’s land is economically unproductive parking and vacant land.” Our cities have plenty of room to grow and attract good jobs and the middle class. That should be our focus, not directing scarce resources to suburban development. 

Tim Vilinskis is a resident of Ridgefield, CT