Election Day is behind us, President-elect Barack Obama is preparing to take the reins, and everyone is wondering whether he can save us from sliding into the abyss.
What to do?
My dad liked to say "The Lord helps those who help themselves." So how, then, should we help ourselves?
The near-term help most likely from Washington will be FDR-like infrastructure money. Gov. M. Jodi Rell has wisely talked about a state infrastructure investment to go with it. How should that aid play out in Connecticut?
The answer ought to be affordable, green, attractive, well-situated housing. Some of the investment ought to be for restoration and preservation of existing homes, to prevent foreclosures and to stabilize neighborhoods. But much of it should be new construction.
The payback will be fast — much faster than roads and bridges, where long lead time is needed. We'll quickly put money in the hands of builders, construction workers, suppliers and home furnishers. And there is huge demand. Our adult children, empty-nester parents and service workers all need affordable homes.
The state's rental vacancy rate is less than 5 percent and the median home price is still $275,000. So the economic crisis is likely to put huge demand pressure on the short supply of affordable rentals and starter homes for would-be buyers who can no longer qualify for big mortgages. Without more modest housing, family homelessness, already up 13 percent last year, will mushroom. Construction will bring homes for workers, building jobs, new state tax revenue and new money to the economy.
On top of that, smart housing policy would translate to smart transportation, energy and land-use policies. There are already people working for Gov. Rell and our legislative leaders who know how to marry new housing with transit-oriented development, brownfield remediation and investment in old mills. The result: Housing workers can afford in responsible growth locations, cars off the highways and emissions out of the air, less sprawl and new business attracted to the state.
The good news: We don't need to force towns to create housing. They need it, want it and are preparing to build it now.
Twenty-five towns have applied for grants under the new HOMEConnecticut statute to plan housing options, and at least 20 more will do so this year. They need housing for teachers, firefighters and other municipal workers; commercial workers that local businesses now can't find; elderly residents who need to downsize; and their adult children who want to live in the towns they grew up in.
Meanwhile, the business community is suffering skilled labor shortages and demographers are warning that, unless we grow our young workforce, our state's economy will wither.
The better news: The market can absorb more homes. Unlike the rest of the nation, we've built so little since 2000 — we're 46th among the states in units built per capita — housing prices in Connecticut have come down only slightly in 2008 after continuing to rise in 2006 and 2007, when prices in other states were already sliding into their deep, double-digit declines.
The towns want the new housing in the right places — near rail lines, town centers and other responsible growth locations — and builders are ready to build it.
To leaven this loaf, it wouldn't hurt if Gov. Rell marketed Connecticut nationwide as a state open for business and now building green, affordable, cool homes.
Better still, because so many towns want to create housing along active rail lines, I'd use some infrastructure money to create or upgrade service on those lines. As Tom Condon reported, rail is helping revitalize Worcester. Rail can take our state to the same destination.
This recession won't last forever. We can mitigate its harshest effects, prevent more homelessness, stimulate our near-term economy and position ourselves for growth when it ends, if we invest in the infrastructure with the fastest return: homes.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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