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New Housing Department Can Shape State's Future

Location, Coordination Key Aspects Of Housing Policy

Hartford Courant Editorial

March 17, 2013

When he was mayor of Stamford, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was impressed by the work a neighboring chief executive, Darien First Selectman Evonne M. Klein, who revived the downtown district and increased affordable housing opportunities in the affluent community.

So Mr. Malloy recruited Ms. Klein, who left office in 2009, to head the new state Department of Housing. Her charge is to create and execute housing policy in the state, particularly regarding affordable housing. She has a remarkable opportunity to set the state on a more livable and sustainable path.

There hasn't really been a coherent state housing policy for decades. What's mostly happened in the past half-century has been the construction of single-family homes in the suburbs.

In 133 of Connecticut's 169 towns, at least 70 percent of the housing stock is single-family. In some towns it is well over 90 percent, according to David Fink of the Partnership for Strong Communities. That may have been a good thing when the greatest generation was raising children, but now, not as much.

Many aging baby boomers are looking to downsize, either by choice or financial circumstance. Many young adults do not want to be tied down to a house with a mortgage. Connecticut needs more housing options.

The Mix

In preparing a policy for the 21st century, Ms. Klein should avoid one key mistake of the 20th, and that is income concentration.

While middle-class people were moving to the suburbs after World War II, many lower-income people were left behind in public housing projects in the cities. Over time the projects became home to the very poor and the result was disastrous: The projects became unlivable.

To keep putting most of the affordable or subsidized housing in urban areas risks turning them into big public housing projects; it repeats the mistakes of the past. Incentives should encourage affordable housing defined as housing in which residents pay less than 30 percent or less of their incomes for rent in all parts of the state. Doing so allows the state's housing investments to support other sound policies.

Let's say the state assists in creating 100 well-designed units with 20 set aside as affordable, in one of the suburban towns along the New Haven-Hartford-Springfield rail line. First, it will help meet the need for rental housing. Connecticut has the sixth-highest cost of rental housing in the country because we have produced so little of it in recent years, according to Mr. Fink. This will in turn help keep younger workers in the state while strengthening the town's grand list.

Parents in the affordable units have school choices they might not have otherwise had, which will help lower the troubling urban-suburban achievement gap.

Housing near transit, known as transit-oriented development, reduces the amount of money families must pay for transportation and supports the state's investment in transit. Making the state less auto-dependent has a number of positives cleaner air, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, less traffic congestion, less sprawl.

In a development such as this, the market-rate units help support the affordable ones, which limits the need for public subsidy. Wherever possible, new developments should be mixed-income.

In addition to location and coordination with other state objectives, housing policy needs to avoiding putting all of its eggs in one basket. All the money cannot go for supportive housing for the homeless, or senior housing, or family housing, but needs to be balanced according to need.

A recent study found that one in four Connecticut families struggles with housing costs. Despite budget challenges, Mr. Malloy has made a strong commitment to more affordable housing, more than $500 million through 2022. Done right, it will make Connecticut a better place to live.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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