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    Saturday, April 01, 2023

    A problem as big as a house


    On Sunday and Monday, The Day published the first reports in its year-long investigative project, the Housing Solutions Lab. The series begins with the most extreme cases of hardship, of people who have faced repeated evictions and months or more living in space that is unsafe, unsanitary or undersized.

    This state’s housing shortage is as pinpoint as the plight of a sole household and as wide as Connecticut. Lack of homes to rent or buy at affordable prices affects not only low-income families but fixed-income seniors and young couples who thought they were making good starter salaries. It spreads from there, affecting the continuity of children’s schooling, overburdening social service agencies and pushing prices higher at all levels.

    The series puts faces on the acute crisis that has developed from the chronic problem of insufficient, stable and affordable housing. Its early findings strongly suggest that potential solutions will have to be multi-faceted: fair consumer laws and policies, realistic market conditions for developers, widely available social services expertise, and above all a public-spirited commitment to finding answers. It is in no one’s interest to let the situation continue, including that of the municipalities that have thus far kicked the problem down the road.

    While towns may not set out to contribute to the problem, the fact is that Connecticut has one of the country’s lowest rates of new home construction. When other states went in for “smart growth” developments, designing neighborhoods that use land the most efficiently and attractively for the most people, Connecticut towns tended to stick to zoning that perpetuates exclusionary practices.

    To counteract that tendency, the state long ago enacted statutory measures that include “8-30g,” which aims for at least 10 percent of housing units per town to be affordable by households of low or medium income. And yet, in New London County, the percentages range from a paltry 1.2 percent in North Stonington and 1.7 percent in Old Lyme, through 4 to 6 percent averages in Waterford, Ledyard, East Lyme and Stonington, to the 19 percent and higher ranges of Norwich, New London and Groton.

    Obviously, a town that doesn’t actively try to add multifamily housing, or that looks for ways to defeat multi-unit construction proposals from developers, can hold off a long time against the state minimum.

    That hurts all renters and many buyers by keeping the supply of housing low and driving up prices. The Day’s reporting reveals what housing experts have long known: that the effect is weightiest among communities of color, following decades of exclusionary zoning and lending practices. In New London County, according to 2021 data from the Urban Institute, 69% of Black households and 70% of Latino households rented their homes, compared to 27% of white households. Starting with the GI Bill after World War II, whites were given advantages in getting mortgages that over time created wealth though home ownership. The racial and ethnic gap here is among the largest in the state.

    On a micro level, the first stories, photographs and videos of the series capture the voices of those affected by their own personal combinations of want, health conditions and eviction histories. What they have to tell about the endless cycle of scrambling for housing must be heard, because they know better than anyone about the Catch-22s of the state’s Rental Assistance Program, the limitations and opportunities of Section 8 vouchers, and dealing with state-contracted authorities. They need social services assistance in finding their way out of the maze. The state needs, and is working training and hiring, more social workers for one-on-one help.

    On a macro level, the series’ charts show the many disparities Connecticut state government, its municipalities and its legislature must tackle to address the housing crisis. New and revised policies and laws may be needed if the old incentives don’t work. The ongoing investigative series will examine what needs fixing.

    Meeting the housing challenge cannot be entirely up to elected officials, however, nor does it require taking sides politically. Humans of all political persuasions — and none at all — should accept the invitation to be part of community conversations about solutions for this urgent human problem.

    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, 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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