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
"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.
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
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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