The Important Distinction Between Policy Goals and Rights

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To the Editor:

In recent weeks, there has been fierce debate over provisions in HB 5429 – a bill that would mandate an as-of-right greenlight for builders to pack and stack housing at a minimum of fifteen dwelling units per acre within the 500 acres of a half-mile radius around a train or bus station with just ten percent of those units set aside for affordable housing.  This is forced density and not about affordable housing.

Opposition to the legislation is bipartisan and predicated on serious concerns that the bill creates a centrally-planned approach that makes little sense for the needs and aspirations of our unique Connecticut towns. The bill, in effect, strips away local control over zoning and land use by rubberstamping apartment complexes – with no public hearings – in some of our towns’ most charming historic areas, many of which have aged infrastructure, limited parking, and environmental proximity to coastal waters. 

In an exchange that made the rounds in statewide press, I asked a young proponent of HB 5429 during the public hearing if he believed housing is a “right.” He said yes.  My refutation grabbed headlines and the editorial board of Hearst characterized my question as “completely beside the point.” Respectfully, on the contrary, my question gets to the heart of the matter.

It is exactly activists’ belief that “housing is a right” that drives their support for bills like HB 5429 that give developers great leeway to build what these activists feel they and others are entitled to.  Because housing is a thing that takes the work of others to build, the underlying claim in the belief “housing is a right” is that society can force people in the housing sector – and taxpayers – to give housing to those who need, want, or demand housing.  Not doing so would be a violation of their rights. 

Indeed, there is also a bill before the legislature right now, SB168, An Act Establishing a Right to Housing, which further details: (1) a right to protection from housing loss and legal assistance in evictions and problem-solving counseling; (2) a right to safe housing that meets basic needs with necessary services and infrastructure; (3) a right to housing affordability and rental assistance programs that also maintains, repairs and rehabilitates low-cost housing; (4) a right to rehousing assistance for those who have become homeless into long-term permanent housing that is affordable; and finally, (5) a right to recognition of special circumstances that present obstacles to finding affordable housing, “whether because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, unemployment, criminal record, eviction history…” Please read the language of this bill for yourself.

Affordable quality housing in safe neighborhoods with jobs nearby is an important public policy goal, but there is a difference between that and a right.  Rights, correctly conceived, are synonymous with freedoms that are unalienable and given by our Creator.  We each have an equal right to life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, and more, like the right to freely speak one’s minds and the right to worship God as one wishes. 

By contrast, housing is the result of countless voluntary exchanges shaped by the real economics of what the National Association of Home Builders’ senior VP for economics and housing policy, Dr. Robert Dietz, calls the Five L’s, as in Labor, Lots to build on, Lumber and materials, Laws and regulations, and Lending availability. 

Bypassing this reality and dictating what home building must look like under the pretext that there is a “right” to housing results in policies that exacerbate existing policy problems, like not enough affordable housing, while creating new ones, like potential regular major flooding.  

For families, moving to less dense towns from denser cities is not just a temporary stopover, but often the end goal. Laws like HB 5429 would strip away their dream under the false pretense that high housing costs are due entirely to low housing supply instead of price points that reflect the high costs of labor, land, lumber, laws and lending.

Towns should not be forced by activists to increase their housing density and alter their historical identity without their consent.  Many areas with less density are intentionally that way because they provide more space for raising families, parent-involved school systems, a tangible sense of home, increased safety with less congestion, and healthier outdoor activity. The state legislature has no business potentially depriving these localities of such attributes.  

It sounds nice to say things like “housing is a right” because we all want our neighbors to have shelter.  Still fundamentally, it is not a “right” because it is not unalienable or coming from our Creator, but rather other persons have to provide it.

Nobody should believe that builders are suddenly virtuous angels.  Behind DesegregateCT and paying for lobbyists in Hartford is the Regional Plan Association, a New York City-based non-profit whose board members are representatives of big corporate builders like RXR, Durst Organization, and Menlo Realty Ventures.  Under HB 5429 with only 10% mandated affordable and 90% of units at market rate, builders are no doubt thrilled about the rubberstamping they will enjoy to build in Connecticut’s coastal towns without having to listen to local voices.

The truth is that bills like HB 5429 and SB168 will only exacerbate the top problem our state is experiencing.  In fact, there is one thing that both supporters and detractors agree upon: that the cost-of-living in Connecticut is far too high and out of control. And that is why I will continue to join both Republicans and Democrats in the legislature to oppose such unwise and harmful proposals. 

Please join for a “Support Local Control” zoning rally at the Springdale Station, 865 Hope Street, Stamford, on Saturday, April 2, from 2-3PM.  Hope to see you there!


Kimberly Fiorello is the Republican state representative for the 149th District including Greenwich and Stamford