Why not compromise? Both sides in the current affordable housing debate share many of the same objectives. No one questions that housing is a vital state interest. Adequate and affordable housing is essential for personal well-being and for the state economy as a whole. Connecticut also has one of the highest per capita debt burdens in the country; we need to grow our population in order to pay the bills.
The smart thing to do is a compromise that would allow towns relief from the controversial 8-30g affordable housing law if they adopt smart planning and design principles that allow the building of a variety of new market-rate housing.
After all, many of the proposed housing strategies are sound. Mixed Use Transit-Orientated and Main Street Development, Form Based Zoning, Accessory Dwelling Units, New Urbanism and Missing Middle Housing principles have a proven track record of creating beautiful timeless places with a variety of market-rate housing. In fact, many localities have already put some of these strategies in place. However, having the state write difficult-to-change prescriptive regulations is a mistake.
Unfortunately, 8-30g allows developers to ignore all of those accepted planning and design principles. The Fair-Share housing proposal and the way we think about affordable housing in general are also deeply flawed.
- Is inexplicably untethered to any design principles, which encourages ugly big box projects instead of smaller fine-grained ones
- Promotes sprawl by steering development dollars to the suburbs by exempting cities
- Infringes on the rights of small property owners
- Uses a inaccurate definition of “affordable housing”
- Is based on an arbitrary unattainable 10% “affordable housing” threshold
- Relies on flawed economics where market-rate renters pay higher rents to subsidize low-income renters.
NIMBY’s justifiably rail against some (though, not all) 8-30g projects because they are, in fact, awful.
The Fair-Share housing proposal is similarly flawed. The Fair-Share quotas proposed are completely unrealistic, the methodology used is questionable, it never really worked in New Jersey (the one state that adopted it), and completely depends on big out-of-scale projects to provide the subsidized deed-restricted units.
At a press conference in January of 2020, Mayor Luke Bronin stated “we have a high poverty rate in our communities, in part, because we have — by policy — made this a community that can only be poor”. That raises some important questions. First, perhaps it was a bad idea in the first place to build so much public housing instead of assisting individuals (either through housing vouchers or through mortgage assistance). Second, is building and maintaining public housing the most efficient use of scarce housing assistance dollars?
There are many downsides to public housing, including deed-restricted rentals. They limit the beneficiary’s mobility and any possibility of building equity through homeownership. This has had long-term negative consequences. However, public housing still has a role, especially for our most vulnerable.
8-30g distorts our entire affordable housing strategy, by incentivizing suburban deed-restricted development. Scrapping it in exchange for innovative, locally crafted housing plans with realistic objective goals would be better. Just ensure we can build a variety of market-rate housing and let the older units become the affordable ones. Because, the fact is, new construction “affordable” units are very expensive.
We also need to grow and redevelop our cities – this is crucial. In 2020, the Lamont administration said it wanted to double the population of Connecticut’s cities, why was that proposal quietly dropped? It made so much sense, both economically and environmentally. Why are housing advocates promoting New Jersey style suburban sprawl in Connecticut? Our cities have plenty of room to grow; there is no shortage of big parking lots, under-developed land, and brownfields. By one estimate up to seventy percent of New Haven’s land is “economically unproductive”. However, growing our cities would require the tough urban reforms that have been politically difficult – poor schools, high property taxes, and crime all need to be addressed.
This dual track is the way forward. Grow our cities with big bold projects and our towns with fine-grained locally appropriate ones.
I know there are many affordable housing and zoning reports out there, but there is no consensus. We need to take the time to get some agreement on the fundamentals before permanently altering our landscape with ill-conceived development. The Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future should be taking a hard look at these issues.
We should also adopt SB169 (the study of affordable housing policies) to get us pointed in the right direction, and reject HB5204 (Fair Share Housing), HB5429 (Transit-Orientated Development), and HB5209 (Housing Authority Jurisdiction) before heading further down the wrong path.