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    Tuesday, February 27, 2024

    Good housing makes good neighbors

    The real-life field surgeons who were the models for the fictional Hawkeye Pierce were patching up injured soldiers in Korea when my dad closed his fledgling dental practice and re-joined the Army.

    During World War II, when he was a young officer, the Army paid the tuition for medical and dental students in anticipation of needing them for a much longer war than the atomic bomb brought to a swift close. He graduated, the war ended and he returned to civilian life.

    But by 1951 the military had embraced lifesaving “meatball surgery,” as M*A*S*H called it. The wounded whose lives and limbs were saved in field hospitals were sent back for more medical care and often follow-up surgeries at military hospitals in the States. My father served at Fort Belvoir in Alexandria, Va., on a team that required dental surgery as part of the repair work.

    I tell this story not only to highlight a milestone in American medical and military history but to point out the ripples from such a large-scale endeavor. Our family of two parents, two toddlers and a baby on the way went to live in Virginia. We needed a home.

    The city of Alexandria, the government and private enterprise had quickly built acres of duplexes to house hospital staff officers, workers in the post-war expansion boom, civil servants and others.

    Occupying the other side of our up-and-down half were the Biros. The dad, Rudy, was a police officer. Their daughter, Bobby, was my first BFF. She taught me that soda was “pop,” a lollipop was a “sucker,”and a bag was a “sack,” pronounced “saaa-aack.“

    Glendale Terrace was affordable housing. It collected a wide array of people from places near and far and made them neighbors.

    In a recent interview with The Day Editorial Board, U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney answered a question about the obstacles to getting control of today’s critical affordable housing shortage. He remarked that EB executives have become housing advocates as the company recruits from around the country; new hires need places to rent or buy. CBIA, the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, is advocating for first-time homebuyer tax incentives. At all income levels, the shortage affects jobs, child-raising and the building of personal savings. Everyone needs a home they can afford.

    Where minds can meet, whether they want more housing or fear too many new faces in town, is over a clearer understanding of what affordable housing is — and isn’t. The moves the Greatest Generation made when they were starting out, and the lives and careers they built illustrate what can happen with a modest start. But for that, a family needs a home.

    Professionals and executives who can afford the green and handsome neighborhoods Connecticut is known for can see beyond the natural desire to preserve the character that attracted them in the first place. The choice does not have to be one or the other. Yet communities have to find solutions to the local shortage of affordable places to buy or rent, which has been growing nationally since the Great Recession and COVID-era supply chain problems. People need good homes.

    State and federal governments offer tax incentives and credits through the LIHTEC program, but those are usable only when there is something affordable on the market.

    To get more housing built in more places, one win-win strategy is to remediate an otherwise off-limits brownfield to a condition where children can safely live and play. The town gets rid of an eyesore and homes open up. Stonington and New London have new units built on cleaned-up land; in New London, many tenants are EB employees.

    Size also matters, as Courtney suggested. He is right in that too large a project will create more opposition than a smaller one, because it feels threatening to the small-scale lifestyle of most towns. Smaller should also make it easier for new neighbors and longtime residents to get to know each other individually. A person is knowable; a large group is apt to be typecast.

    Courtney made another comment that resonates: Making room for affordable housing “is not just about magnanimity.” By that I think he meant that welcoming affordable housing to town is not about hosts and guests, not a passing act of hospitality. It offers benefits both to those who arrive and those who have made the town what it is.

    I’d say it is a chance for more good neighbors, new and old.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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