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Housing Fund Will Help Us All

February 27, 2005
By Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey

It was one of those biting cold January mornings when most of us rush into the car and can't wait for the heater to start working. I'd just stopped at a light at Albany Avenue and Garden Street, finally warm and enjoying the music on the car radio.

The knock on the passenger side window shocked me out of my daydream. I looked at the man motioning to me to roll down the window and was startled by the ice in his hair and beard.

I opened the passenger door quickly and told him to come inside the car.

"I just want some change if you can spare it," he said.

"Please get in," I told him instead.

He was clearly homeless and shaking so badly from the cold that I'd never seen anything like it. He told me he'd been unable to get into the shelter that night, and that they were closed now during the day, so he had no place to get warm.

I drove him up to North Main Street to the Ragin' Cajun, where I bought him breakfast. Then I gave him $5. That's when he told me it was his birthday. I made sure he got a ride back into the city, where he could go to the library to get out of the cold.

Housing - or, rather, the lack of it - is no joke in Connecticut.

But we are dealing with something new these days. The lack of housing is no longer just a plague endured by my friend and others who are poor or homeless, single mothers with children, the unemployed or unskilled, those burdened with substance abuse or mental illness.

We have managed to turn a bad problem into one that threatens our entire state economy. We have made housing unaffordable to those in the middle class.

More than a decade of inattention - Gov. William O'Neill provided $121 million for housing in 1990, and last year we were able to scrape together barely $15 million - along with low-interest rates have created the perfect housing storm.

Land values in Connecticut have been bid up so high that those in the housing market - or rich enough to get in - have prospered. Their homes have appreciated, and low-interest rates have translated into low mortgage payments.

But the losers - those without the economic wherewithal to get into the market - have lost big time. And the losers now include hard-working, able-bodied, well-meaning workers making anywhere from $30,000 a year in eastern and central Connecticut to $75,000 or $80,000 in the wealthy enclaves of southwestern Connecticut.

We promised them the American Dream if they worked hard and led honest, moral lives. And now we are breaking our promise.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition says the state's housing wage is $18 an hour: What one has to earn to afford a typical two-bedroom apartment without having to spend more than 30 percent of his income on rent.

Why is 30 percent the benchmark? Because if you have to spend more, you don't have very much left for food, clothing, transportation and life's other necessities.

Guess how many different occupations in Connecticut are paid a median wage less than $18? According to the latest count, 288 of them. Among those occupations: teachers and bank tellers, police dispatchers and computer operators.

But it's no longer just a matter of fairness - that everyone ought to be able to find safe, secure housing they can afford. Nor is it simply a matter of their survival. It is now a matter of our survival. Our economic survival.

Consider this:

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association released a survey last month that showed serious labor shortages in 12 skilled manufacturing occupations ranging from tool and die makers to engineers, welders to production managers.

The state Office of Workforce Competitiveness has found that Connecticut has more trouble than most states holding onto skilled college graduates.

The state continues to lose population in the crucial 25- to 44-year-old age group, just the people we need to stay here, raise families, pay taxes and fill the jobs our businesses need to expand.

The New England Economic Partnership reported in October that Connecticut's salaries are undercut by "the [state's] higher cost of living, especially for housing."

And that's exactly the problem. Businesses will not locate in Connecticut or expand here if they cannot find workers or, when they can find them, if they have to pay them much higher salaries to cover high housing costs.

As a deputy speaker of the state House of Representatives, I can assure you we will all suffer as a result. Losing population and stifling economic growth will mean fewer jobs and fewer taxpayers. Our local and state revenues will fall, our taxes will rise or our key services will be reduced, and our quality of life will wither.

Luckily, state Treasurer Denise Nappier has proposed a $100 million trust fund - supported by unclaimed assets - that can help developers produce housing that working families can afford. That housing will keep skilled workers in Connecticut, providing business with the people they needed to grow. We need to make the trust fund law.

If we provide housing, as Nappier has wisely proposed, our economic future will be enhanced. If we don't, it will be imperiled.

Marie Lopez Kirkley-Bey, D-Hartford, is a deputy speaker of the state House of Representatives.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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