1%? Housing challenge deserves far larger investment
Addressing the state’s affordable housing crisis has not been a priority in spending $1.5 billion in American Rescue Plan Act stimulus funding. Connecticut towns and cities have thus far allocated only about 1% of the pandemic-relief aid to housing needs, according to an analysis of the data.
Sadly, and inexcusably, the housing problem has received little attention despite specific language allowing allocations for such things as development and preservation of affordable housing, assistance for the homeless, mortgage help, and planning strategies to address housing issues.
Those who could benefit most if towns and cities devote more relief funding to providing affordable housing are the very folks who served on the frontlines during the pandemic — retail workers and those in service industries who could not stay home and do their jobs and who are on the lower end of the pay scale.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition reports that on average a Connecticut renter must earn about $57,000 annually to find a rent that is affordable, defined as spending no more than a third of income on an apartment. The same group estimates Connecticut needs about 84,500 affordable units to close the housing gap.
This failure to address the housing problem is a result, at least in part, of how rescue funds were distributed in Connecticut. Other states channeled the funds through county governments. A regional approach to spending is more likely to address regional problems, such as the lack of affordable housing. But lacking county government, the federal funding went to individual towns, divvied up proportionately by population. Parochial interests took priority, and for most communities that was not meeting housing needs.
(Old Lyme allocated $150,000 in ARPA funds to affordable housing.)
These are all important matters, and just a small example of overall allocations. But the point is that helping people find affordable places to live should rank up with, if not surpass, these and other needs.
It is the region’s urban communities — already providing significant affordable housing stock — that have directed substantial relief funding to housing initiatives. Norwich has allocated $2 million and New London $610,000 for such efforts, according to reporting by the Connecticut Mirror using U.S. Department of the Treasury data.
Most other towns in our region failed to include housing needs when spending their federal aid, the Mirror reported.
Stonington is a notable exception. It set aside $170,000 for housing-related projects, most of it to help low- and moderate-income homeowners pay for necessary repairs. First Selectwoman Danielle Chesebrough wanted more aid directed to housing needs, but the Board of Finance cut her recommendation.
Ledyard directed $1.2 million to subsidize extending sewer lines to encourage development. The town should make it a point to assure that new development includes affordable, multifamily housing.
Meanwhile, roughly half the federal money directed to the state remains unobligated. Municipalities should earmark a substantial amount of those unallocated funds for affordable housing initiatives.
In 2019 the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments issued a report on ways to meet the housing and transportation needs of a growing Electric Boat workforce. By expanding on that data, it can provide municipalities guidance in helping meet housing needs for all segments of the labor force, not just defense workers.
Finally, the state legislature, recognizing towns and cities received federal help to meet other needs, should make expanding the availability of affordable housing a priority when lawmakers return to Hartford in 2023.
The fact that municipalities have directed so little of the American Rescue Plan Act funding to address such a dire need is a missed opportunity.
Editor’s note: This editorial has been edited to include Old Lyme’s allocation to 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, 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.