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Concerning affordable housing, Connecticut must do better

There may be no state issue more complex, controversial and emotional than how, or even whether, to provide more affordable housing opportunities in Connecticut’s suburbs and encourage racial and economic integration.

It is a discussion that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, touching on racism, classism, restrictive zoning, and the ability of towns to use those zoning rules to protect the character of their communities. Affordable-housing advocates see “character” as a code word for keeping “those people” out.

What is unassailable is that housing options for low-income residents are almost exclusively situated in impoverished and often segregated communities. Even the middle-class is increasingly priced out of housing options. It is a Connecticut embarrassment. A state that likes to see itself as progressive is highly segregated in its makeup and grossly unequal in its educational opportunities, a place of haves and have nots.

Conservatives would argue that there are already ample federal and state laws that prohibit housing discrimination and that the way out of those neighborhoods is hard work and clawing one’s way up the economic ladder. Policy proposals recently approved by the Planning and Development Committee to encourage development of more affordable housing, and now headed to the full state legislature, failed to attract a single Republican vote.

Affordable-housing activists counter that when people are effectively locked into poor, segregated neighborhoods with underperforming schools, and with fewer job opportunities, poverty becomes generational. Only when Connecticut welcomes diversity in its communities can there be true progress, they contend.

They are right. Connecticut can do better. Connecticut must do better.

The state has had on the books for three decades a statute intended to promote affordable housing and, in the process, increased integration. The law states that unless 10% of a town’s housing stock is government-assisted or deed-restricted to remain affordable, a developer who is willing to build housing with a number of affordable units cannot be blocked by local zoning rules.

While not a total failure — it has produced about 12,000 modestly priced, market-rate apartments, condos or homes as part of mixed-income developments — it did not live up to expectations. Projects can be denied for health or safety reasons, which when invoked cannot be overcome without lengthy, costly legal fights. Developers and nonprofit proponents often give up.

After protests concerning the deaths of Black Americans while in police custody reinvigorated calls for racial justice, advocates renewed their efforts to push for affordable housing to attack segregation. One such group, Desegregate Connecticut, led by Sara Bronin, wife of Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin, has seen its ideas get serious attention in the legislature.

Another advocacy group, Open Communities Alliance, has pushed forward a proposal it labels Fair Share Zoning.

Some of the policy proposals that have moved out of committee, taken from both groups, would take incremental steps toward addressing the issue. And incremental is probably the best that can be politically hoped for.

Most interesting is a bill, pushed by House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and based on the Fair Share proposal, which would require towns to provide a designated amount of affordable housing, but leave it to the towns to figure out how to reach the designation. The affordable-housing goal would be determined by a housing-needs assessment. This proposal has the benefit of boosting affordable housing while giving towns autonomy in figuring out how.

The legislation envisions penalties for not achieving the housing target, but we wonder if a carrot, in the form of financial incentives, would work better and win more support than a stick. President Biden, in his massive infrastructure plan, proposes providing “attractive funding to jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate needless barriers to producing affordable housing.”

Low-hanging fruit is a proposal to eliminate “character of the community” as among the impacts local planning and zoning commissions can assess in judging a housing development proposal. These land-use boards should stick to objective criteria.

Also deserving of support is allowing “accessory dwelling units” — a converted garage, renovated basement or an in-law type apartment — to only have to meet building codes, not receive special zoning permits.

Let this year be the year at least some advancement is achieved in the effort to supply affordable housing.

 

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 Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser 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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