Eastern Connecticut wants more affordable housing. Why won’t the state help?
Let's say you and I are going to have a 100-yard foot race, only I break both of your ankles at the start and begin my race at the 40-yard line. Who do you think will win?
That's the position that the State of Connecticut has put eastern Connecticut in when it comes to affordable housing. They want us to compete, but they've broken our ankles when it comes to incentivizing developers to build affordable housing.
Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, two affordable housing advocacy groups awarded eastern Connecticut an embarrassing "C" grade when it comes to our progress toward building affordable housing in the region. Under their definition, a residence is considered affordable when people making less than 80% of the area median income spend no more than 30% of their income on housing-related expenses such as rent, utilities and property taxes.
As an aside, I don’t believe in that definition – I think Connecticut should have a standard, statewide affordable housing definition in pure dollars. It's something to consider when you realize that the average single family home in Windham County now sells for $313,000 while two-thirds of all Connecticut tax returns (single, married and head of household) are for incomes of less than $74,700 a year.
Anyway, I'm not arguing with the grade. What I am arguing about is the same issue that I and a bipartisan group of lawmakers from eastern Connecticut have been making for years: the rules that the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority have created to distribute millions of dollars in tax credits for affordable housing development have hurt eastern Connecticut, and will continue to hurt eastern Connecticut, until those rules are changed.
Two years ago, we wrote the CHFA Board of Directors and lobbied for a delay in the implementation of CHFA's new rules for determining the so-called 'opportunity score' for a particular town or region. CHFA has long emphasized the opportunity score when deciding what affordable housing projects will receive state tax credits, thereby lowering the cost for builders. Cities and towns are graded according to the degree of 'opportunity' in the surrounding community, usually defined as a town's school rating, its poverty rate, its proximity to community colleges, and its jobs-to-population ratio. A high opportunity score is desirable, and a low opportunity score makes it virtually impossible to receive state grants for affordable housing construction.
Well, we got our delay. And then they delay ended, and CHFA approved its 2022-23 qualified allocation plan as written. The result? Only 1% of the regions in Tolland, Windham and New London Counties qualify as 'high' opportunity affordable housing investment areas, compared to a 20% statewide average.
If you look at CHFA's "Connecticut Opportunity Map" and draw a line from the Stafford/Union town line on the Massachusetts border down through East Lyme on Long Island Sound, more than half of the census tracts to the east are labeled "very low" or "low" opportunity. Another third of the tracts are labeled as "moderate" opportunity. New London County doesn’t have a single "very high" opportunity area on the entire map.
So, who is awarded the most desirable opportunity rankings for affordable housing development? Redding, Stamford, Weston, Greenwich and other Fairfield County enclaves of Connecticut's super wealthy.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that there hasn't been a lot of progress on affordable housing in eastern Connecticut, because the State of Connecticut is essentially telling developers not to build affordable housing here. Do you know the phrases "Follow the money" and "If you build it, they will come"? The same applies to affordable housing.
Here's the deal: the median home sale price in New London County over the past year is $325,000. Electric Boat is looking to hire 10,000 people over the next decade. Eighty seven % of Connecticut manufacturers (and there are hundreds of EB subcontractors in eastern Connecticut) say they can’t hire enough people to remain competitive and grow. What's the solution, besides our classroom-to-shoproom jobs pipeline? More affordable housing.
Connecticut needs to re-configure its affordable housing "Opportunity Map" to include a broader array of metrics and possibilities. Instead of penalizing towns for having limited water or sewer lines, or a lack of public transportation, perhaps CHFA should recognize that towns would expand these utilities if more economic development was directed their way — much the same way we do for brownfields and historic preservation.
If the race for affordable housing and economic development is going to be won by the swiftest, it's time for Connecticut to stop hobbling those who want to compete and get ahead.
State Sen. Cathy Osten represents the 19th District, covering Ledyard, Norwich, a portion of Montville, Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Lisbon, Marlborough and Sprague.
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