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Open Affordable Housing Door

May 15, 2005

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:

Bridgeport/Stamford/Norwalk: 1.7 percent.

Hartford/West Hartford/East Hartford: 1.9 percent.

New Haven/Milford: 2.2 percent.

Norwich/New London: 1.7 percent.

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