Housing is not Just About the Suburbs


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Everyone in Connecticut should be able to live in vibrant, safe, and welcoming communities, no
matter their income, wealth, or where they come from. Where we live plays a critical role in our
lives; schools, air quality, transportation, access to jobs, healthcare, and opportunity is closely
tied to our neighborhood, cities, and towns.

In Connecticut, however, housing remains tied in a tangled web of constraints, zoning regulations, and legislation that has driven economic and racial segregation.

Connecticut does not build much new housing, so our population (and workforce) has been
largely stagnant. Tight supply means shelter costs are high, so workers cannot afford to live in
our state. Companies in turn cannot expand because they cannot find staff. To make things
worse, we have built a system that reinforces inequality and intentionally pushes resources
away from many communities, while wealthy suburbs not just hoard opportunity, but work hard
to keep people away.

The disparities are indeed glaring, and exclusionary practices are infuriating. No one that cares
about social justice or economic growth can see a town like Darien purchase an island for $103
million and then claim they cannot afford to build more housing and not get deeply irritated. The
state should consider legislation to prevent the most privileged enclaves in the nation from
claiming poverty while blocking any affordable housing construction in town.

There is something to bear in mind, however: we should also do a lot more to ensure that
Connecticut cities and towns receive the support they need to grow into vibrant communities. In
fact, I’d argue that this might be a more urgent task, due to the deeply reactionary nature of our
municipal government structure.

For starters, we should actively support our cities to grow themselves into the vibrant, safe, and
welcoming communities we want them to be. By growing I mean increasing their population. If
our wealthy, overprivileged suburbs do not want to build the housing we need to expand our
workforce and grow our economy, we should make sure that our cities not are just ready to pick
up the slack, but that they have the tools to ensure this growth happens in an equitable and just

Most of our large cities and towns have, in fact, a lot of room to grow. Hartford is more than
50,000 people below its 1950s population peak: New Haven 30,000; Bridgeport 20,000. Most of
our urban areas also have vast amounts of underused land, abandoned buildings, surface
parking lots, and brownfields.

In many cases, these areas are in places that are incredibly attractive to just build stuff. Hartford
has acres of surface parking lots surrounding downtown, and scores of empty, abandoned
factories lining up some of its busiest transportation corridors. New Haven has huge portions of
its waterfront in Fair Haven just empty, including a massive, Gothamesque abandoned power station that closed more than three decades ago. Bridgeport shares a lot with New Haven, including having massive, abandoned factories right by the rail line or a dog racing track on the waterfront that has been abandoned for almost twenty years.

Quite a few of these properties are heavily polluted. They cannot be sold or used due to the cost
of cleaning them up, or because they are stuck in endless rounds of litigation trying to find who
is liable. Others are simply zoned for other uses. Empty lots designated for “light industry”
decades after the last factory closed are sadly common.

These issues, however, are not hard to fix. Connecticut could, for instance, approve legislation
aimed at brownfield remediation, using eminent domain to take over these properties and have
the state just do the environmental remediation itself. Once ready, we could just auction the
properties to the highest bidder to cover part of the cost and rely on the economic activity they
generate afterwards to cover the rest of the investment. Pretty much any use we give to English
Station in New Haven would be better than the current post-apocalyptic art-deco empty shell
that it is now. No matter how much it costs to clean it up, it will surely have a better return than
having lawyers litigate forever who are responsible for cleaning up the mess.

The legislature should tie any legislation of this sort with two clear conditions. First, an explicit
requirement that any state investment should be followed by significant upzoning and better
land use. Remediation is costly, so we want a lot of development (dense, walkable, mixed-use)
to ensure it is money well spent. Ensuring we build a lot of new housing is most important, so
even a small set-aside, percentage wise, generates a lot of new affordable units.

Second, and most importantly, we want to make sure that the new jobs created by this new
development do not just go to people in the community, but that they are solid, well-paying,
unionized jobs. Project labor agreements should be the norm, paired with additional investment
in apprenticeship and training programs.

Investing in cities would not fully solve our housing problems or reduce economic and racial
segregation, but it will get us on the right path. We know this approach works, as well; Stamford,
by far Connecticut’s most prosperous city, has done so essentially by growing its population.
Even more importantly, these policies are cheap; the initial investments in environmental
remediation pay for themselves quickly, and zoning changes have zero cost.

The best part, however, is that investing in good jobs, economic development, and affordable
housing in the cities can be done at the same time as other policies aimed at expanding housing
in the suburbs. Fixing the problem will require doing both – and doing it in an equitable manner
requires we do it this way.