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‘Affordable’ Still Not Equal
Housing Law Fails to Break Barriers in Affluent Towns

By Mike Swift

Seven years after the fact, Walter A. Twachtman is still angry.

The lawyer remembers the bitter hearings when he represented a developer who wanted to build 159 apartments for renters earning $35,000 or less near the center of Glastonbury, and the residents who decried the harm “those people” would bring to the town.

A court ruling under the state's affordable housing appeals law ordered Glastonbury to reverse its rejection of a zone change for the complex. But the effort died in 1997, when the town council paid $1.2 million to buy the land where the affordable housing was to be built.

“This is such an act -- in my humble opinion -- of injustice,” the Glastonbury lawyer said recently. “If you listen to the town, they would say, `We did that because we wanted to preserve open space land.' Sounds good, doesn't it? They also made it impossible for us to do our project.”

Across the river in Hartford, there's a different story. About four of every 10 homes in Hartford are now government-subsidized for low- and moderate-income people. In Glastonbury, it's about one in 20.

Persistent Imbalance

In 1989, the legislature passed an affordable housing appeals law intended to pry open the gates that affluent towns often erect against housing for working-class and poor people. But 15 years later, an analysis based on state housing and federal census data suggests the law has failed to forge significant progress:

Ten years ago, the poorest quarter of Connecticut cities and towns had about three-quarters of the state's subsidized housing, while the richest quarter had about one-twentieth, according to data collected by the state Department of Economic and Community Development. In 2003, those shares were virtually unchanged.

Between 1993 and 2003, the 20 Connecticut towns with the lowest poverty rates added a net total of 164 affordable homes. The 20 cities and towns with the highest poverty rates collectively added 7,365 affordable homes in that same period.

A few affluent towns, notably West Hartford and Norwalk, have added significant numbers of subsidized homes. But many of the state's richest and fastest-growing towns still have virtually none. More than a third of the 118 towns where household income was higher than the state median had fewer affordable homes in 2003 than in 1993.

In some cases, there are good reasons for the decline in subsidized housing totals that the state uses to measure the supply of affordable housing, officials say. When some homeowners, for example, decided to refinance government-subsidized mortgages in recent years to take advantage of lower interest rates, their properties were no longer counted as subsidized housing under the state's criteria.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates, based on 2000 Census data, that more than 200,000 low- and moderate-income households in Connecticut are “severely burdened” by housing costs -- spending 50 percent or more of their income on housing. Experts agree the state's affordable housing shortfall is growing worse, and business leaders, housing advocates and state housing officials say many towns need to do more.

“The affluent communities, for whatever reason, and there are a lot of good reasons and a lot of bad reasons,” have not built as much affordable housing, said Michael Regan, an official with the state community development agency. “Some of it is because of fear. Some of it is because of prejudice. Some of it is because of a decision not to change the rural character of their communities.”

The basic principle behind the 1989 affordable housing law was that in towns with little affordable housing -- less than 10 percent of housing stock -- developers could ask courts to override local zoning to build affordable housing. One goal was to create neighborhoods and communities with a more diverse mix of working-class, middle-class and wealthy people, instead of having separate enclaves of rich and poor, white and minority.

No Local Control

Since the affordable housing appeals law was passed in 1989, the General Assembly has modified it three times. Housing advocates say the law should be stronger, but they are afraid to reopen a debate in the legislature because the law has so many enemies.

Critics say the law is the wrong approach because it tramples on local control, emphasizes punishment over encouragement and allows developers to decide where housing should be built with no direction from local zoning officials.

In Glastonbury, town officials say the proposed affordable housing site was a poor location, in part because of concerns about flooding from the nearby Connecticut River. The town had been interested in buying the land for recreation since the 1980s, said Kurt P. Cavanaugh, a member of the town council. “I just don't think it was a decent proposal for decent housing,” he said.

Noting the “hostile emotional undertones” in the town's legal documents and in public hearings on the housing project, a Superior Court judge rejected all 10 reasons the town gave for blocking the project and ordered Glastonbury to allow a zone change for the homes. Instead, the town bought the land.

The affordable housing appeals law is one of the few state statutes that permit an outside power -- in this case, the courts -- to trump a local government's decisions over how its land is developed.

“The law has been made a bit better with reforms that have been enacted over the past several sessions,” said one critic, state Rep. T.R. Rowe, R-Trumbull. “But the underlying law remains that local control of zoning is not always going to remain local as long as this so-called affordable housing appeals act is still out there.”

Rowe said the affordable housing developments built in Trumbull as a result of the law have put more stress on taxpayers.

“The developments tend to have children, and children are great. But the fiscal reality is that our schools have grown considerably. We've had to build a new school in part because of our increasing population. We would have had to have built it eventually, but that [affordable housing] sped that along. When you increase your population unnaturally, your emergency services are taxed, your fire department needs more volunteers. ... Your police department has more areas to patrol. There's more streets to pave and plow.”

One reason the law hasn't opened rich towns to more moderate-priced housing is that the legislature's changes made it tougher for developers to use it, said Terry J. Tondro, a University of Connecticut law professor who was co-chairman of the legislative commission that proposed the law. He said the legislature changed the law's emphasis from housing for the working class to housing for low-income people, inflaming local opposition even more.

“The towns fought this thing so energetically that it really made it very difficult to get things done,” Tondro said. “I think we need to worry -- and I don't see the state worried very much about it -- about this growing segregation of rich and poor.”

Other advocates say the state is financing less affordable housing overall. The problem, they say, lies in the large drop in state money available to build affordable housing since the early 1990s, and in the decision to fold the state's independent housing department into a larger department whose main mission is economic development, the Department of Economic and Community Development.

State officials counter that federal money has covered much of the state shortfall and that about $450 million in federal, state and private money has been spent on affordable housing over the past five years. By packaging money from multiple sources, “we're doing more with less,” Regan said. But even they acknowledge a significant shortfall of quality affordable housing in some parts of the state.

“The state has really withdrawn from its commitment to affordable housing,” said Jeffrey Freiser, executive director of the Connecticut Housing Coalition.

Reward, Not Punishment

Increasingly, in states such as New Jersey and Massachusetts, with similar traditions of strong local government and a wide disparity between rich and poor communities, the issue of affordable housing is being linked to statewide policies intended to fight sprawl and boost economic growth.

Connecticut business leaders say this state, like its neighbors, needs to move away from the punitive approach under the 1989 law. Instead of punishing towns that don't build affordable housing, they say, the state should reward towns that build it.

“The old fight [over affordable housing], the moral issue -- it's old, it's tiresome, it doesn't work,” said Joseph McGee, the former state commissioner of economic development who is a vice president of the Southwestern Area Commerce & Industry Association of Connecticut. “Smart communities build good neighborhoods with a range of housing and good schools. And the role of the state should be to [encourage] that.”

He said Connecticut could follow the example of Massachusetts, where legislation passed last year provides state grants to towns that create zoning districts for affordable housing, and additional grants if that housing is built.

The measure also aims to combat sprawl and boost mass transit by encouraging towns to build near developed areas and close to transit. Massachusetts leaders are considering a plan to reimburse towns for the education costs of children who live in that housing.

During the first 10 years after Connecticut's appeals law was passed, state courts overrode local zoning 27 times, ordering local governments to allow affordable housing developments. But, as with the housing proposed in Glastonbury, not all of it was actually built. As of 2000,

384 affordable units had been built or were under construction as a result of those court actions, according to the Office of Legislative Research.

Advocates say the law indirectly has created many more affordable homes, by encouraging towns to approve affordable housing they would have rejected, but for the threat of court action. Some estimate that the law has produced as many as 3,000 affordable units -- about 2 percent of the state's current total -- since it was passed.

'A Village'

The Flagg Road Cooperative in West Hartford is one housing complex that got built as a result of the law.

The 10-home complex was completed in 1995 by a nonprofit developer, following a court battle with the town. Nancy Geissler, 56, has lived here since the beginning. She never wants to leave.

A decade ago, Geissler had lost her mobility, her career and her Los Angeles home after losing a leg to diabetes. Having moved back to Connecticut to be closer to family, she was paying two-thirds of her $13,000 income from Social Security for rent in Vernon. She lived under an electric blanket because she couldn't afford to heat her apartment above 55 degrees and she subsisted on 10-cent packets of ramen noodles.

“I never thought I'd live in a place this nice again,” she said, speaking on a warm fall afternoon in the tree-shaded courtyard of the three-building complex, as school buses dropped off neighborhood children.

The co-op's buildings are immaculate. The grass is neatly clipped. Residents' housing costs are 30 percent of their income, under a form of ownership in which residents have the rights and responsibilities of ownership, but do not keep the equity from increasing property values.

Residents include an assistant parking lot manager, a nurse's aide and a Home Depot warehouse worker. There are black, Latino and white residents. They split the responsibility for maintenance. There's even a commonly owned pet, a stray cat who wandered in and was adopted by the co-op's children, who named the cat Oreo and helped build her a tiny wooden house of her own.

“We're like a little village,” Geissler said. “We're dependent on one another to get things done.”

Half of the 10 original families still live here. Everyone who moved was able to save enough money while living here to buy their first homes, said Geissler, who heads the co-op board.

It's not perfect, Geissler said. While living here comes with the headaches of ownership, residents don't get the corresponding benefits of rising property values most homeowners get. And Geissler said she's not sure the model would work for complexes much larger than hers.

Geissler doesn't believe the acrimony many towns feel toward affordable housing is gone. When the complex wanted to add six parking spaces recently, the town council rejected its request.

“It's not economic at all,” she said of wealthier towns' opposition to affordable housing. “It's totally fear. They don't want mixed neighborhoods. It's like having a prison. If you asked people, would they rather live next to a prison or affordable housing, they'd probably say a prison."

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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