Make affordable housing a priority

Connecticut enacted a law aimed at spurring affordable housing development nearly 25 years ago, but a quarter-century later, there is precious little evidence of progress.

The law allows developers proposing to build higher density, lower-priced housing to override local zoning regulations in towns where less than 10 percent of housing stock is deeded as affordable. Just 32 of the state's 169 municipalities currently have met that 10 percent threshold. In southeastern Connecticut, a paltry three communities - Groton, New London and Norwich - exceed the 10 percent, making them exempt from the affordable housing appeals law.

The Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments contends many towns have more affordable units, albeit not formally deeded in land records, than what the law allows them to count toward the 10 percent. It recently requested the state allow local officials to include these non-deeded housing units on their official tallies.

On the surface, COG's move may seem a logical request that would enable more towns to retain total local zoning control. However, while COG officials are correct that there exists at least some more affordable housing in the region than what is counted on the official tally, another and arguably more crucial fact is this: too many of the state's families continue to struggle to find safe, affordable housing.

This is unacceptable.

Though a lagging economy has battered Connecticut home prices for several years, families earning the median income still cannot afford the median sales price of a home in 117 of the state's towns, according to the Connecticut Housing Coalition. Further, the coalition estimates some 344,000 Connecticut households pay more than 30 percent of their income toward housing, exceeding the standards for affordability.

Even sadder, 27 percent of renters spend more than 50 percent of their incomes on housing, according to the housing advocacy group The Partnership for Strong Communities. To comfortably afford the typical two-bedroom rental cost in the state, households must earn more than $48,000 annually. Two minimum wage earners working full time and sharing the same household fall more than $12,000 short of this threshold, even considering the Jan. 1 minimum wage boost in Connecticut.

"When the market heats up, prices will go up again and what may be affordable now will not be then," David Fink, policy director of The Partnership for Strong Communities said. "The tragedy of affordable housing is that Connecticut has never had enough of it."

While the 1990 law did little to change this, Fink said he has more confidence a 5-year-old affordable housing incentive program called HOMEConnecticut will. This program offers towns financial incentives, starting with planning and study grants, to create Incentive Housing Zones in areas locals deem appropriate, thus retaining local control. The zones must allow for at least 20 percent of the housing developed on them to be affordable and allow higher density development than is typical in many towns: six single-family, 10 townhome or duplex or 20 multifamily units per acre.

In southeastern Connecticut, East Lyme, New London, Old Saybrook and Colchester already have identified and adopted these incentive zones. Stonington, North Stonington and Essex have received grants and are conducting studies through the program. Montville, Waterford and Ledyard also have expressed interest in working to create these zones.

The HOMEConnecticut program has not yet produced affordable housing units in enough quantity or throughout all towns in the state. Still, it holds promise that it will do so because it allows towns to retain local development control, while also working proactively to attract the type of housing developments that will most benefit so many of their residents. Among these residents are teachers, firefighters, police officers, restaurant workers, casino employees, younger people just beginning their career ladder climbs and baby boomers seeking to downsize.

Safe, affordable housing is a basic human need. Instead of seeking to redefine the state's designation of what can be counted as affordable, municipal officials should be working to encourage more mixed income housing developments locally. Only then, will many more southeastern Connecticut towns be welcoming places that lower- and middle-income workers will call home.

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