Forum on affordable housing focuses on state, local issues

New London — State legislators, reporters and a former lobbyist converged on Mitchell College on Thursday morning to discuss the issue of affordable housing in depth.

A crowd of between 60 and 70 people gathered on the second floor of the Weller Center to hear Connecticut Mirror reporter Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, consultant Charlie Duffy, state Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly, and state Rep. Susan Johnson, D-Willimantic, speak on the issues of affordable housing and segregation in Connecticut. Former NPR editor, host and reporter John Dankosky moderated the conversation. A similar event will be held in Norwich on March 6.

Thomas wrote a series on affordable housing in Connecticut through a partnership between the Mirror and ProPublica called "Separated by Design."

It's a complex issue relating to education as well as what the report describes as racial and economic segregation. Thomas looked specifically to New London County and surrounding areas in beginning her presentation. She showed "invisible redlines" in the county, and said redlining — a practice of putting services, such as financial, educational or housing-related, out of reach for residents of specific areas based on race or ethnicity — still is happening, "just in another form."

A picture of a map she displayed showed the farther from the heart of New London, the fewer affordable housing opportunities there are.

The region is a near-perfect example of what Thomas found while reporting. "Since the mid-1980s, almost $2.2 billion in low-income housing tax credits have been awarded to construct 27,000 affordable housing units in the state," she wrote in a November story. "Just 10% were built in prosperous towns, an investigation by The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica has found. About 80% were located in struggling communities, literally erecting pockets of poverty."

Local planning and zoning boards exacerbate the issue. In representing local interests, Connecticut municipalities have built systems of "finely tuned zoning regulations," as she put it, used to block affordable housing proposals.

As a case in point, Thomas showed three screenshots of stories from The Day in the past two years about Old Lyme, East Lyme and Waterford. The stories describe town halls packed with residents decrying attempts to build affordable housing in the towns.

One proposed affordable housing facility in Old Lyme drew about 275 people to a hearing in 2018, "with some audience members interjecting comments and cheering or booing," according to reporting from The Day.

Thomas lingered on a photo of the Cohanzie School in Waterford, which has been vacant since 2008. "This is what stands there now," she said. Public hearings on an application for a multifamily housing complex at the site turned bitter. As The Day reported in October 2019: "The sometimes loud, rowdy showing from residents against the proposed project made the hearing a contentious one."

Opposition to the development at Cohanzie and similar affordable housing proposals in the region has been justified by fears of decreased home values, as well as worries about traffic and other concerns. But Thomas and the panelists noted research does not show the decreased home value argument to be valid.

Thomas brought up a quote from Westport Planning and Zoning Commission member Chip Stephens as an example of less-veiled rhetoric regarding affordable housing: "To me this is ghettoizing Westport," Stephens said in 2018.

Most of the panelists acknowledged the racism inherent in where the state applies its low-income housing tax credits: The "pockets of poverty" mentioned earlier overwhelmingly comprise people of color.

Dankosky asked Flexer and Johnson how the issue is viewed among state legislators.

"It's an issue that's talked about, but it's not talked about enough," Flexer said. "The legislature's a suburban-dominated entity, and many legislators represent communities that want to keep affordable housing out."

Thomas cited Gov. Ned Lamont's idea on how to combat affordable housing issues and his legislative inaction on the topic. "The governor has not proposed any housing legislation this legislative session or last," Thomas said. "What his administration has said is they can do it by talking to communities, and hoping that they see the value of allowing people to live where they work. I think history shows that hasn't worked; to think that nobody has been talking to communities to get things built, I think, is naive."

Duffy implored audience members to turn the forum into action. "There's a lot of work to be done, so I'm glad you're here, and I hope we can generate some activity, some interest, some movement," he said.

Thomas pointed to Old Lyme's recent creation of an affordable housing committee as a good step toward a solution to a lack of affordable housing in affluent areas.

The high-profile event was attended by municipal, city and state leaders. The Mirror and ProPublica credited Thomas's series with changing Lamont's mind on affordable housing. The governor said in January "that he is poised to tie state spending on transportation upgrades in affluent communities — such as new or renovated train stops — to local approval of more affordable housing projects." That was an apparent "retreat from his administration's previous stance, which emphasized local control, and came as other leaders in the state demanded action," according to ProPublica and the Mirror.

s.spinella@theday.com

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