Lawmakers on affordable housing: ‘There’s no money’

Young workers are leaving Connecticut at alarming rates, in part because of the lack of affordable housing.

But House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill and the chairman of the state’s Planning and Development Committee Brendan J. Sharkey said Wednesday the state can and should do only so much to address the problem.

“There’s no money. And there’s not going to be any money,” Sharkey told a group of elected officials, builders, employers, developers and city planners.

Because of the state’s dire financial situation, Sharkey quickly dismissed any of the proposals circulating the room that would cost the state money.

“In case you didn’t hear, we are broke,” the Hamden Democrat said. “We cannot afford the level of government we have now.”

Holding up the list of proposed policy changes made by The Partnership for Strong Communities, Sharkey said more than half are off-limits because they would result in the state spending money it does not have.

“Did I mention we are broke?” he reiterated.

The state has a $513 million deficit in the fiscal year ending June 30, a $287 million gap in the following fiscal year, and deficits projected at more than $3 billion for each of the three years after that.

The partnership’s policy suggestions include four tax credits -for employers who create affordable housing for their workers, for developers building affordable units by mass-transit stations, for new businesses and for incentives for using mass transit. Other suggestions include enacting “green building” codes to spur specialized jobs and provide grants for development in high-density areas.

“There may never be enough funds to provide affordable housing,” warned Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Joan McDonald, noting that Connecticut loses a higher proportion of its young professionals than any state in the country. It also has one of the oldest populations.

“Regardless of political party the residents of this state are saying just do it,” she said. “There is little affordable housing.”

Connecticut has 117,000 housing units that are required to charge affordable rents because of tax credits or construction financing agreements. But the state could lose 39,000 of them by 2020 unless they are renovated at an estimated cost of $202 million.

There are 34,000 federal housing units in the state, and U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn) and other Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee members wrote President Barack Obama last week to request funding remain at current levels for housing assistance programs.

Merrill said the state can work toward providing affordable housing all it wants – but that won’t change two simple facts: there aren’t enough good jobs and there aren’t enough attractions to keep young people in the state.

“Frankly, it’s just not an interesting place to live for them,” she said of eastern Connecticut and the district she represents.

Merrill, a Mansfield Democrat, said her son now lives Stamford and tells her he won’t be moving back to eastern Connecticut because there’s nothing to do. The lack of affordable housing was never even the issue.

“Most people wait until they have families to come back,” she said.

The cost of living in Connecticut is 25 percent higher than the national average and young workers make significantly less than needed to afford an “average” apartment, reported the PSC.

Michael Pace, the first selectman of Old Saybrook, couldn’t agree more.

While looking around downtown Hartford, he said, “Look at this place. Look how close these buildings are. Young people want this. They want to be able to walk to a coffee shop, walk to go shopping, walk places.”

This plan to promote more downtown life and living is exactly what Merrill says she has been doing with trying to get a downtown-style development in Storrs close to the University of Connecticut’s main campus.

“Right now is the time to build,” she said, acknowledging cheap building costs.”

But, the more she thinks about it, the less she condones government involvement in construction projects.

“We can try and set the table,” by loosening regulatory restrictions and creating conducive public transit, Merrill said. “… This has the best chance of being successful.”

Then it’s up to young people to want to move here, she said; affordable housing and livable wages will follow.

Regulations imposed on developers is what really drives housing prices up, said Rep. Bill Aman, R-South Windsor, a homebuilder for 30 years. Requirements for sprinklers, wider sidewalks or higher licensing fees create costs that are passed on to the homebuyer, he said.

“There has to be a reality check. Every time you add $1 in costs that makes it $4 more expensive to the homebuyer,” he said, noting he’s tried to provide affordable housing. “… Who is going to turn down a market dying to buy your product?”

The SCP, which hosted the forum, outlined their opposition to several zoning and land-use policies made by communities and the state, saying such restrictions add 35 percent to development costs.

Vin Cimino, a real estate developer from Clinton, said the demand for affordable housing exists and he is one of the few taking advantage of this market.

“I am not competing with anyone cause no one else is providing these affordable units,” Cimino said, who is building a 48-unit apartment complex in Clinton geared at providing affordable housing.

When asked during an interview if he is confident the project will be affordable to the average young professional, after jumping through all the hurdles, he said “Absolutely. But there does need to be more incentives and fewer regulations.”