New London County earns a ‘C’ on its affordable housing progress
Picture New London County as one big classroom, its individual towns representing students taking the same affordable housing progress exam.
The final test results put the region squarely in the middle of the grade curve with an average “C” score, according to a new report authored by local housing advocate groups, who are now encouraging communities to transition from studying the issue to implementing changes.
As part of an ongoing effort to create more affordable housing in the state, the Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut, or CHEO, partnered with Desegregate Connecticut and Regional Plan Association to create a “scorecard” listing the progress of local towns and cities in their creation of a housing plan.
The report, which will be shared during a Connecticut College symposium on Oct. 18 from 5:30 to 7 p.m., highlights the strengths, shortcomings and omissions in community housing plans with the goal of moving toward the practical application of the proposals, CHEO officials said.
In awarding the scores, volunteers over a period of months combed through communities’ affordable housing plans that were mandated by the state Legislature to be adopted by June 1, 2022.
CHEO Director Beth Sabilia said her overall impression of the report was that communities “were on the right track when it comes to thinking about housing affordability.”
State Department of Housing guidelines say the plans should “outline tangible steps for increasing access to housing for people of all income levels, backgrounds and states of life.”
“Just creating these plans was a big undertaking for towns, who are all being asked to do far more with less,” Sabilia said. “And, by and large, they all rose to the challenge.”
A residence is considered affordable when those making less than 80% of the area median income and spend no more than 30% of their income on housing-related expenses like rent, utilities and taxes. In the New London-Norwich area, the annual area median income is $112,300 for an average household, according to state data.
There are at least 89,000 more low-income households in Connecticut looking for monthly housing payments they can afford than there are places for them to live, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
The report found the state’s “severe lack” of affordable housing is most acutely seen in New London County, where more than 25% of homeowners ― and nearly half its renters ― are spending at least 30% of their income on shelter-related costs.
Grading the plans
Municipalities were graded through a weighted system based on recommendations laid out in the state Department of Housing’s Planning for Affordability in Connecticut guidebook.
Final scores, which ranged from 0 to 5 “housing icons,” were based percentages earned on four topic scores: submission of plan; planning progress; needs assessment; and recommended actions.
Of New London County’s 21 municipalities, only Griswold failed to submit a local affordable housing plan to the state Office of Policy and Management as of October, the report states. Griswold First Selectwoman Dana Bennett could not immediately be reached for comment.
The average community score was 2.5 “housing icons” with Ledyard garnering the highest regional grade of 3.5, earning 66 out of 100 possible points. Stonington chalked up the lowest score of 1.5, or 25 out of 100 points.
New London’s 2.5 score and 50 overall points included 10 points for turning in a plan on time; two in the planning progress category; 16 in the needs assessment portion; and 22 in the actions and implementation section.
The city lost points for not providing diversity details on the committee that created the plan, creating a web page explaining the group’s work, using focus groups or holding a public hearing.
More points were subtracted for the plan not including a regional goal or a progress-tracking metric. The city’s plan did earn one of the region’s highest scores for including proposed actions aimed at addressing housing access issues related to discrimination.
The Town of Ledyard’s plan earned a high number of points in both the needs and implementation categories. Higher-than-average scores were awarded for the inclusion of demographic and housing needs assessments as well as land-use maps.
The town also scored relatively high in the action section, earning 29 out of 45 possible points, by implementing “reforming” zoning changes to allow more duplex, triplex, multi-family and transit-oriented housing.
Bright spots and more work needed
There were bright spots even for communities whose plans didn’t score well. Norwich, with its 2.5 grade, was singled out as the rare municipality to have reached or surpassed a 10% affordable housing target with a 19% stock.
Groton, also a 2.5, recommended establishing an affordable housing trust fund, as did East Lyme, New London, Stonington and several other towns. Montville, which earned a 3, included data on housing construction trends, which demonstrated a decline in the number of housing permits awarded since 1990.
Despite some positives highlighted in the report, authors noted most New London County communities “have more work to do to bring invested and inclusive leadership to the table” when it comes to spurring affordable housing growth in the region.
“Ultimately, the success of these local affordable housing plans will lie in their implementation,” the report states. “A community’s plan may include a terrific list of proposed actions, none of which move out of the idea stage.”
And in many cases, a modest, but actionable plan is preferable to one that overpromises, CHEO officials said.
“(Such a) plan may include just three concrete actions to create more homes, but all are implemented in full within the next five years,” the report adds.
Sabilia said moving towns from planning phase to implementation will be the next big challenge.
“My hope is this report will shore up those efforts, have them re-examine their plans and check lists and follow through on changes they said they’d make,” she said. “It’s important for these communities to know there are groups out here willing to help.”