Three Issues That Must Be Addressed Together


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We want to build a state where everyone has access to good, safe, and affordable housing. We also want to ensure that no one in Connecticut has to waste untold hours of their lives stuck in traffic jams and driving for an hour to get to work. In addition, we want to reduce greenhouse emissions to preserve our environment for future generations.

Each of these issues has economic, racial, and social justice implications tied to them. The high cost of housing falls the hardest on low-income communities; racial and economic segregation comes directly from it. Transportation costs also fall hardest on low-income households; Americans spend an average of 12% of their income on transportation, but that percentage rises to 27% for those at the bottom quintile. The most polluted neighborhoods (and those more vulnerable to climate change) happen to be majority Black or Hispanic.

These three issues look like a long wishlist for any policymaker, a whole slew of really hard-to-fix problems that will take a lot of effort, legislation, and resources to solve. A fix for each, then, will require three whole policy programs; three big, big legislative hills to climb. Not an easy job at our state Capitol, even for the most committed lawmakers.

The good news is that housing, transportation, and climate change are not really three separate problems. They are, in fact, a single policy problem. You do not need three fixes; they are one and the same.

Consider transportation. We drive to go to work, to the gym, shopping, run errands, grab lunch, or have fun somewhere. The majority of these trips start or end at home, meaning that where we live in relation to our job, the YMCA, supermarket, post office, favorite restaurant, movie theater, or shopping center matters a great deal.

The average one-way commute in Connecticut is a bit over 26 minutes, meaning that a good amount of us spend an hour or more sitting in our cars every day. Living close to our job, however, tends to be quite expensive, so many workers trade commute length for lower rents or mortgage payments; it is cheaper to live 20 miles from Stamford than right by the city, but we pay the difference by spending time sitting in traffic on a longer commute.

Now, there is a way to allow more people to live closer to their workplace and avoid clogging highways in endless traffic jams. We can build more housing closer to job centers, ensuring folks do not have to drive long distances to get to work. Shorter commute times are, however, a major amenity, so demand for these dwellings will be high. To keep them affordable, we will need to build enough new units to meet that demand. Land, however, is scarce, specifically in locations closer to many work and amenities. As a result, we will need to build denser, taller buildings where there is enough demand, lowering prices.

Now, denser housing has a few additional advantages. First of all, it is cheaper to build, as the cost of land is shared among more units. Second, it can be more easily served by mass transit, as having more folks living within walking distance from a bus stop or train station makes it cheaper to operate. Third, they are much more environmentally friendly and energy efficient, both on their own, as self-contained buildings, and by creating more walkable neighborhoods.

Fewer cars, less congestion, cheaper housing, lower emissions: by building dense housing, we are actually fixing all three. The truth is, housing, climate, and transportation are not really separate issues; they are one and the same. The only way to fix any of them is by tackling all three together, with a focus on land use.

The most interesting bit of all this is that fixing land use does not take all that much effort. A medium-density new-build neighborhood usually has about one hundred units per acre of land. This requires nothing bigger than four- or five-story buildings; a bit taller if you want larger units or want to cram parking spaces, a bit shorter with modern, single-staircase building codes. It is dense, but not crowded; a nice, pleasant community.

Now, recent studies show that Connecticut will need at least 92,000 new affordable housing units to meet current housing demand. This means that we can comfortably accommodate all these units in the state in less than two square miles of land, with some room to spare. For reference, this is less than half of the land used by Bradley International Airport. The new housing would also be  spread across many locations – preferably close to existing mass transit, job centers, and places where folks want to live.

We know housing affordability has become a real, persistent problem for Connecticut, both for families struggling to make ends meet and for businesses stuck with high costs and labor shortages. We know transportation and traffic congestion have a negative impact on the economy, and we know pollution from car travel on our overburdened highways has a tremendous health impact on the low-income communities of color next to them. We can fix these three issues simultaneously, just by finding a couple of square miles of land and building new housing on it.

Considering how important these three issues are to our state, we should get to work right away.