Don’t forget affordable housing in town planning

When dozens of East Lyme residents turned out late last month to share their vision for the town’s future with local planning officials, most discussed a desire for more open space, less development and increased protections for natural resources.

The comments made during a public forum to help formulate content for the town’s revised Plan of Conservation and Development should hardly be surprising given recent local events. Residents in the fall endured massive traffic woes associated with road construction at Interstate 95 and the new Costco building. They’ve watched the development of the sprawling Gateway Commons transform many acres of forest into housing north of the highway.

But as public sentiment coalesces around a future vision of a greener, more natural town, another essential piece of the updated document that serves as a blueprint for both development and conservation should not be diminished. That essential piece is the need for affordable housing, a need that is shared by much of the region.

Most communities’ POCDs, including East Lyme’s, include sections dedicated to strategies for promoting more affordable housing. Despite this, however, most Connecticut towns do not meet a statewide goal that 10 percent of each town’s housing stock be priced at affordable levels. A state law designed to encourage just that has been in place since 1989, but not terribly effective.

Of course, the need for more affordable housing in suburban Connecticut extends well beyond the borders of East Lyme. The Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities 2019 fact sheet on housing in the state shows 48 percent of renters in the state pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Even worse: about a quarter of all renters pay more than half their income on housing, according to Partnership data.

The total number of affordable housing units in the state decreased by 665 in 2018, according to the state Department of Housing. Affordable housing is generally defined as housing considered affordable to those earning up to 80 percent of the local median income. This commonly encompasses income levels of retirees, as well as many young professionals working as teachers, child care workers, and those in the service industry and law enforcement. A 2019 investigation by the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found that more than 36 Connecticut towns for 20 years have blocked construction of privately developed duplexes and apartments — the type of housing generally considered to result in more affordable units. Most often, this is accomplished through exclusionary zoning practices in wealthier towns.

To East Lyme’s credit, its current plan of development includes seven pages of strategies for encouraging more affordable housing development. The town also has a separate 20-page affordable housing plan adopted in 2009.

Director of Planning Gary A. Goeschel said he’s currently compiling up-to-date data on the number of affordable units now in place in town. This will soon be brought to the subcommittee working on updating the town’s plan.

In the decade since the town’s current plan was approved, some affordable units near downtown Niantic have been completed. Plans for a 64-unit affordable complex located near Rocky Neck State Park also are moving forward with developers just recently having submitted applications for building permits.

Even so, 600-square-foot studio apartments at the new Sound at Gateway Commons start at a hefty $1,475 rental rate, demonstrating a continued preference by developers to cater to wealthier clientele.

In order to entice and retain young professionals and achieve long-term economic stability, more affordable housing is needed throughout the region. As East Lyme prepares for the document that will guide its next decade, we urge planners to emphasize this need and send the message that it’s both possible and desirable to have more affordable housing, while also protecting natural resources and striving to increase open space.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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