One of us is a lifelong, third-generation resident of Newington who has lived all over this town. The other is a more recent transplant. Both of us love this town. We do not believe in building barriers to affordable housing because these barriers mean that the cost of admission right now is too high for others to live in and enjoy our wonderful town.
Given our professions, we are both very aware of the challenges faced by those who lack access to affordable housing. One of us has been a legal services lawyer in Connecticut for more than 20 years. The other a new employee in the homelessness sector.
What is affordable housing? The common definition is housing that represents no more than 30 percent of a household’s budget. It is important to distinguish affordable housing developments from “low-income” or “project-based housing” developments which are built solely for subsidized rent units. Affordable housing developments, like the one proposed in Newington, may have residents receiving state or federal rent subsidies, but this will only account for a portion of the building’s occupants.
Unfortunately, affordable housing is difficult to find in Connecticut, and not only in Newington. Out of the 169 cities and towns in our state; only 31 have more than 10 percent affordable housing.
Connecticut has a statute, CGS 8-30g, that controls the procedure in affordable housing appeals. Town planning and zoning commissions may only deny a permit for specific reasons enumerated in the statute: the rejection must be necessary to protect substantial public interests in health, safety or other similar matters. Once a town meets a threshold of 10 percent or more affordable housing, a town is exempt from the coverage of this statute. Newington currently has a little over eight percent affordable housing. That means the town is subject to the provisions of this statute.
There are many false assumptions made regarding affordable housing and the people who occupy it. One misconception is that property values will go down if affordable housing is built in a neighborhood, but research proves this is not actually true.
Many raise concerns that taxes will increase because the development will be filled with school-age children. Enrollment in Connecticut public schools is projected to decline overall, with many of the costs associated with schools being fixed. Unless there is such a huge influx of students that would necessitate opening a new school [not likely to happen], the cost per pupil will actually go down as fixed costs remain the same while more students’ needs are met. Most school budget increases are not related to student enrollment, but instead the rising costs of employee benefits.
Concerns have been raised about the environmental suitability of the proposed site. An examination of the remediation efforts is necessary – both the efforts that have already taken place and those that are proposed – to see if these environmental concerns can be adequately addressed. The proposed site is the site of a former car dealership. Contaminants in the soil may pose a threat to public health and if those threats are substantial, it may be necessary to reject the current proposal.
Traffic has been the central focus of the opposition to the proposed development. The expected increase on an already overly congested roadway may be a founded argument, but it does not represent a significant safety concern. A more valid criticism is the accessibility of municipal and public safety vehicles. The approval by police, fire and EMS authorities are necessary to alleviate this apprehension, and if given, should be cause for the TPZ to move forward without further issue.
The need for more affordable housing in this state is clear. The need for more affordable housing in Newington is equally clear. This town should not be saying “no” simply for the sake of saying no, and keeping things status quo. If we can move forward with this project in a manner that addresses any legitimate health and safety concerns, we should view it as an opportunity to show the potential success of these developments to other towns in the state and take pride in our efforts to contribute to alleviating the hardships of our neighbors in greatest need.
We encourage the planning and zoning commission to look carefully at the requirements of the statute, and only reject the application if it finds that is necessary to do so. Otherwise, we encourage this town to work with the developer so that more people, including working families who require additional assistance, have the opportunity to enjoy all that this town, and its community, has to offer.
Kathy Flaherty and Ryan Beach are residents of Newington.