The availability of affordable housing may be the most pressing issue in Connecticut’s cities right now. The prevailing wisdom has been that cities should encourage the creation of market-rate and luxury rental housing, on the theory that an abundance of higher-end apartments would prevent wealthier tenants from bidding up the cost of older housing stock and creating gentrification that displaced poorer residents. But the results aren’t so good: eviction rates in Hartford, where I serve on the City Council, remain some of the highest in the nation, and rents continue to rise. It’s time to try something else: public housing.
Hartford has certainly leaned into market-rate construction as the remedy for affordable housing scarcity: the city has used tax-fixing and tax abatement agreements to spur a construction boom downtown. But most of the new housing is unaffordable to Hartford residents. And this new supply of luxury housing hasn’t helped the neediest. Average rents are rising, and constituents tell me that their landlords have been imposing dramatic increases when offering new leases. I don’t know if this is because landlords recognize that their tenants lack options, or if they’re banking on a coming wave of new tenants with more money. Either way, poor people are getting squeezed.
In some states, municipalities can rein in rising rents through regulation, but the legislature has not given Connecticut cities that tool. But one tool is available to us to help struggling families and influence the private market: public housing.
When the city controls the rent and the quality of housing, it creates an alternative that forces private landlords to compete. And cities can couple the development of public housing with vigorous code enforcement, essentially giving slumlords an ultimatum: change your ways or we will take your building and turn it into clean, safe, affordable public housing.
Critics will say that cities don’t have the resources to create housing and be landlords, but this fails to recognize a fundamental truth: stable, accessible housing saves money. Numerous studies have shown that housing stability and affordability reduce crime, improve children’s academic performance, and facilitate sustained employment and economic stability. And Hartford, at least, has proved it can provide great services when it prioritizes them: our fire department and our library are both nationally recognized for performance and innovation.
It would be great if state government prioritized the needs of Connecticut’s urban poor, by passing rent control, fully funding PILOT, and forcing wealthy towns to allow the construction of affordable housing. Until then, cities must act now to house their neediest residents. The construction of market rate and luxury housing has not done the job. It’s time to try something new.
Michtom, a member of the Working Families Party, currently sits on the Hartford City Council