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Housing Data: Statistics on Housing Growth in Connecticut Conflict

Kenneth Gosselin

May 14, 2011

A U.S. Census count this week showing stronger-than-expected growth in the number of Connecticut's apartments, condominiums and single-family houses in the last decade caught many by surprise, given towns and cities in the state had issued permits for 25 percent fewer units for the same period.

Even Michael C. Santoro, an official at the state Department of Economic and Community Development who deals with these numbers all the time, looked twice when the census released its decennial housing report Wednesday.

"It is bigger than it has been," Santoro said.

The census count showed that Connecticut added 101,900 housing units as of April 1, 2010, compared with a decade earlier. But from 2000 to 2010, municipalities issued permits for 76,800 housing units. Both sets of statistics are collected by the census.

It is not unusual for there to be some difference: The decennial Census measures actual housing built, while permits gauge developer intentions to build, whether or not construction comes to fruition.

What makes the difference particularly striking, however, is that new construction has been stuck in the doldrums for the past five years, only bottoming out in 2010.

Santoro said there are a variety of factors influencing the construction reported by the census. The biggest, he said, the construction lag from the late 1990s, when building was humming. In 1998, permits for 11,800 units were issued and in 1999, 10,600. Labor shortages pushed construction for at least some of those projects beyond 2000.

"If you look at permits issued in late 1998 and 1999, there were potentially 24,000 units that were under construction at the time of the 2000 Census," Santoro said. "These units would not have been counted in the 2000 census, but were due to permit activity prior to the 2000 census. They were counted at the 2010 census."

Also, Santoro said, "undocumented" activity also played a role in the numbers. He said many communities discovered a "substantial" number of accessory or "in-law" apartments for which permits never were obtained. In one town, Trumbull, there were more than 200 units, he said.

"Clearly, there is some of that occurring in every community," Santoro said. "Multiply that over 169 communities and it adds up."

Stacy Gimbel Vidal, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Census, said Friday the decennial count also covers housing units such as an RV, van, boat or trailer that aren't covered by traditional construction permits.

"Many of these types of units may not be covered by permits but are counted as housing units when they are enumerated in the various decennial field data collection activities," Vidal said.

Nevertheless, the census report presents a more robust snapshot of supply of new apartments, condominiums and houses in the last decade than most thought to be the case.

Certainly, construction did not approach levels of the 1980s, when the state, particularly Greater Hartford, was flooded with new construction. But the census numbers suggest construction did teeter on overbuilding early in the 2000s. It also explains why the vacancy rate rose to 39 percent by 2010 amid a foreclosure crisis that forced borrowers from their homes and rising unemployment that crimped apartment rentals.

Ronald F. Van Winkle, an economist and town manager of West Hartford, said the strong construction was concentrated in the first half of the decade because the 2001 recession didn't touch housing significantly.

"We didn't get the correction that usually comes with a recession," Van Winkle said. "There was some balance to that later in the decade."

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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