For more then 20 years, Connecticut has chosen to address its
affordable housing needs via the Affordable Housing Appeals Act.
This law allows developers whose applications to build affordable
housing have been turned down by local officials a right of appeal
to a special court. The law applies when less than 10 percent
of the housing units in the town are classified as affordable
and at least 30 percent of the units in the proposed project
will be affordable.
While some modest gains have been made, I believe that this approach
has failed. The most prevalent result of the act has been local controversy,
legal expenses on both sides and the creation of an environment in
which reasonable planning has become difficult at best. The real
importance of affordable housing to Connecticut in terms of economic
vitality and quality of life has become lost.
A pattern of single-family development
continues in the "Land
of Steady Habits" without regard for the future of the state's
residents, businesses and economy. Housing used to be a home, shelter
and a neighborhood all combined. The inflationary nature of housing
since the 1980s has complicated the traditional role of housing.
Now it's an investment. People protect their house and neighborhood
as their primary asset.
The smart growth mantra provides intellectual cover to people who
are protecting this asset by placing the debate on housing development
into a context of informed planning. Open space preservation has
become a key component of this thought process. Open space acquisition
raises housing prices either directly due to geographic proximity
to a property or indirectly by reducing housing supply without reducing
demand. Slow-growth policies under the guise of smart growth simply
limit supply and raise prices. Revitalization of central cities is
good, but usually really for the other guy - the poor, new immigrants,
artistic types, young professionals and maybe some adventuresome
back-to-the-city 55-and-older baby boomers.
We need to look at affordable housing in the same manner as people
look at their houses - as an asset. This asset is not just for the
individual homeowner, but the state of Connecticut as a whole. Decision
makers on local planning and zoning commissions, town councils and
in the state legislature have the same socioeconomic profile as this
author - over 50, somewhat financially secure and the owner of a
single-family home which has increased in value due to the good fortune
of being purchased at the right time in our collective life cycle.
While all of my generation might not fit my profile (literally and
figuratively) of mature, fat and happy, many of us do. Not surprisingly,
our decisions about the future are framed within this context.
I will not dwell on the specifics of the cost of living in Connecticut
compared with income. However, even a cursory examination of the
issue reveals that many homeowners' incomes would not support the
price of their current homes. Put ourselves in the shoes of our children,
young people in general and newcomers to Connecticut and think about
how their housing choices are limited. This problem is further magnified
when one looks at income trends in Connecticut.
The Bureau of Economic Analysis just released statistics on per-capita
income changes between 2002 and 2003. Not surprisingly, in 2003 the
Bridgeport/Norwalk/Stamford Metropolitan Area had the highest per-capita
income in the nation at $60,803, compared with $33,038 for all metropolitan
areas in the U.S. This high income is the primary reason that Connecticut
has the highest per capita in the nation. One would think everything
is rosy in Connecticut with everybody good-looking and all our kids
above average. Let's take a closer look at these income numbers.
For the balance of Connecticut metropolitan areas, the per-capita
incomes are as follows:
Hartford/West Hartford/East Hartford: $38,131.
New Haven/Milford: $36,127.
Norwich/New London: $35,147.
These incomes are higher than the national average, but not substantially
higher. Let's look at the percent increase in per-capita income between
2002 and 2003. The U.S. metropolitan area average increase was 3.1percent.
For Connecticut metropolitan areas the increases were:
Between 2001 and 2003, Bridgeport/Stamford/Norwalk per-capita income
actually decreased 1.6 percent and Hartford/West Hartford/East Hartford's
increased by just 0.4 percent. For the same time period, the national
average increase for metropolitan areas was 2.6 percent. The New
Haven/Milford and Norwich/New London areas had increases of 2.5 percent
and 2.7 percent, respectively, more in line with the national average.
I believe that Connecticut's sluggish growth in income, generally
stagnant population and slow job recovery from the 2001-2003 recession
can be tied directly to the cost of housing. We cannot retain or
attract the young, productive people needed to grow our economy.
I am not against conservation
and preservation. However, we can still have growth to meet affordable
housing needs. A recent U.S. Forestry publication states that Connecticut
is the fourth most densely populated state, but that 60 percent
of its 3.1 million acres are forested. "Few places on earth are likely to have so many people
living among so much forest," the report states. As a planner,
I believe we can grow our economy, house our residents and preserve
the environment we all appreciate. I call on all our residents, as
well as local and state government officials, to look to the future.
As we baby boomers age, let us not forget our children and their
children. Let's show them that the Land of Steady Habits can adjust
its way of thinking and face the future in a proactive, positive
fashion. The status quo never remains the status quo. What we think
we are protecting as a way of life in Connecticut really doesn't
exist anymore, and will not in the future without recognition and
acceptance of change.
Dick Harrall, a professional planner for more than 35 years, is
a principal of Harrall-Michalowski Associates in Hamden.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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