‘Local control’ is a Big Part of Why we are Here in the First Place

A development that includes Below Market Rate apartments in Stamford’s South End. (CT Examiner)


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To the Editor:

A March 15 letter to the editor regarding housing hit these pages recently. In the title of this letter, prior to even starting to read the first sentence, one could glean what the tone would be that further reading would confirm: “Negating Local Zoning Won’t Solve the High Cost of Renting and Buying.” The authors are known anti-housing advocates (at least two of its three authors are co-founders of CT169 Strong which is an anti-housing organization, and ironically one is even a member of the Affordable Housing Committee in New Canaan) so it was not surprising that the letter is strongly anti-housing. In an effort to provide some context and counter-point, here are some observations.

The letter starts out comparing the homeless rate in CT to the number of affordable housing units needed, the former being a much lower number than the latter. The implication of course is that there isn’t such an urgent need to build more housing. But this is not a fair or logical comparison. The number of people that are housing-burdened and housing-threatened is much larger than the homeless number. Should we not address that looming issue? There is a great need/demand for housing for a variety of different groups, including the homeless category. The number of housing units that are needed now, the one that housing advocates indicate, ought to be the real goal (some say the actual need is even higher) so let the reader not be fooled by straw-man arguments.

It goes on to describe the current housing affordability crisis not as a problem of supply, but as a lack of sufficient income. Well! If only those that are housing-burdened would only earn more, then there wouldn’t be this problem! Flawless logic! Why haven’t housing advocates considered this?! (and by this kind of reasoning we can surmise that for people who are starving, the problem isn’t a lack of food, but that they just aren’t eating). This of course begs the question: “short of increased income happening where would you like those people to live?”

The letter goes on to lament the imagined problem that housing advocates “mandate increases in housing without taking into account the supply and cost of the land, construction labor, materials and financing….”  apparently oblivious to (or willfully ignoring) the fact that current housing laws on the books are not “mandates for towns to build” at all, but rather measures to prevent local governments from restricting those property owners who have considered these things and want to go ahead and build housing anyway.

It continues with a description of the economics of housing that can only be described as tortured logic. One need only a basic understanding of the laws of economics to understand that supply and demand are fundamentally linked to price. Constrain the supply and prices go up. And anyone who knows the history of zoning knows that local zoning has created an artificially constrained supply of housing (one of the few industries, if not the only industry, that has this imposed upon it) and that this is one of the core reasons there’s a housing affordability crisis. Yet the letter tries to make the case that increasing the supply somehow creates higher prices.

The letter meanders on with rationales as to why state housing laws should be “reformed,” which is code for “eliminated,” so that local governments can continue restrictive zoning practices. Most towns, in their Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) (italics mine) have clearly identified the need for a more diverse housing stock. Restrictive zoning and other codes essentially prohibit housing options, so current housing laws are remedial.

Anti-housing advocates commonly raise “local control” as a reason for reforming/eliminating these laws, and it is one of their chief goals. But “local control” is a big part of why we are here in the first place, why we have a housing affordability crisis. “Local control” is why higher levels of government had to step in during the 1960’s to prevent exclusionary local regulations from being practiced in public spaces and buildings. It took a higher level of government to step in to do the right thing because it wasn’t being done on the local level. No, “Negating Local Zoning Won’t Solve the High Cost of Renting and Buying”, because it was never the intent for it to fully solve the housing affordability crisis. But it’s a start. These housing laws that are on the books are there to say to local governments “get out of the way of those who would build much-needed housing”.

Paul Stone
Wilton, CT

Stone is a Fairfield-County-based builder and developer