Stonington must use time wisely to fix housing problem
As with most communities in our region, Stonington needs more affordably priced housing. The Pawcatuck section of the town is not the reason for this shortcoming, yet it is targeted as the solution.
Even in Pawcatuck the cost of housing has spiked. Yet with its neighborhoods lined with modest homes on small lots, it remains what it has long been, a place where the middle class can enjoy the American dream of home ownership and sense of community.
Because land there is more affordable, developers pushing projects that include affordably priced rental units have targeted that section of town. Financially, the numbers work. For developers, the numbers don’t work in the town’s coastal sections, where the ability to pay steep prices is the prerequisite for entry.
Some living in Pawcatuck see this as unfair, and understandably so. They want to see an equitable, townwide approach to addressing the affordable housing issue. That will not be easy.
Under state law, affordability is defined as housing that costs no more than 30% of income for those earning less than 80% of an area’s median income. Just 6% of Stonington’s housing is considered affordable, short of the state-mandated target of 10%.
When a municipality has a lack of affordable housing, a developer can push past zoning rules to get a project built if it includes affordably priced units. A project providing such housing can only be denied for public health or safety reasons, and only then if those concerns outweigh the need for affordable housing.
The Stonington Board of Selectmen is now asking for a four-year moratorium on the mandate, as allowed by state law. This would block any new projects coming forward.
It is unfortunate it has come to this. Better planning, and the willingness to make hard decisions, could have addressed this problem sooner. When the Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut evaluated the housing plans submitted by towns in New London County, it gave Stonington the lowest score.
In 2021 the Planning and Zoning Commission, after listening to critics, gutted a serious-minded plan to provide the infrastructure and financing necessary to create attractive affordable housing. When the commission finished cutting, the 33-page plan was down to five pages, which essentially recommended more study of the issue. No wonder the plan scored so poorly in the recent evaluation.
Now the town is trying again. At a town meeting in February, residents approved creating a Housing Opportunities Commission to propose a path forward. The commission concurs with seeking the moratorium, giving it time to develop recommendations.
The commission must act expeditiously. It should reconsider some of the proposals cut from the prior plan. Town leaders — November’s election will determine who they will be — must commit to addressing the affordable housing need with a willingness to push past the opposition that is sure to come. This moratorium should not be simply a means of buying time and avoiding addressing this issue for another four years. A plan should be in place long before then.
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