Housing inequality can be both cause and effect of poverty in wealthy CT

This is the fourth article in an occasional series exploring wealth and income inequality in Connecticut and its impact on a state struggling to cope with massive debt. Find the other articles here.

Christy Regis had only recently gone from working three jobs to one when the dreaded “notice to quit possession” notice fluttered from her Stratford apartment door in August.

The pre-eviction warning nudging Regis and her 2-year-old daughter out of their home came after she fell $1,000 behind on her rent because she used the money instead to fix her 13-year-old, broken-down Nissan.

With nowhere else to go, the pair moved in with Regis’ mother, uncle, and brother in Milford. Regis has since started a second job and said she will likely need a third if she hopes to rent another home in a safe community with decent schools.

“Even when I was working, the amount I was investing in child care and everything, it just did not add up and it was just like the money was going everywhere but where it needed to,” Regis said. “We needed to eat. It got to the point where it was like you had to pick and choose what you put your money to.”

Regis’ dilemma – not being able to afford a home in a suburban area – is a common one for many of Connecticut’s low-income residents, particularly people of color, because of the state’s longstanding and widespread lack of affordable housing.

An ongoing series

Local housing advocates place racism – and the now-illegal practice of redlining – at the center of a complicated web of factors that have led to persistent disparities in housing options available to people of color and whites.

Despite the Malloy administration’s efforts over the last eight years to create more housing opportunities, the problem remains intractable, advocates say, due to restrictive zoning ordinances, persistent segregation, and housing discrimination.

Research by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University indicates a majority of black and Latino households in Connecticut live in areas with high crime and poverty rates, low-performing schools, and a lack of employment opportunities.

This is typically coupled with black and Latinos’ disproportionately lower incomes — leaving them with a greater need for affordable housing and spurring the development and rehabilitation of those units in urban areas.

Though wealth inequality — the differences between different households’ income, stocks, property, and other assets and debts — is one of the chief forces of division in modern society, more economists are becoming increasingly focused on differences in the housing component of the phenomenon.

Representing both the disparities between housing quality and the availability of affordable shelter, housing inequality stems both from market forces as well as discrimination and segregation.

It can be both the cause and the effect of poverty.

Richard Florida, a professor and director at the University of Toronto’s Martin Prosperity Institute, wrote in an April 2018 essay in CityLab that “a mounting body of research suggests that housing inequality may well be the biggest contributor to our economic divides.”

“The ability to buy and own housing, much more than income or any other source of wealth, is a significant factor in the growing divides between the economy’s winners and losers,” Florida wrote.

Low-income families’ lack of housing mobility often leaves them with fewer choices, said David Fink, a consultant for Partnership for Strong Communities.

“They have greater access to child care, health care, recreation, and fresh food by living in those [suburban] places,” Fink said. “It’s a matter of liberty and opportunity. If you’re stuck in a kind of de facto apartheid where you can only live in certain places because price of admission to other towns is too high — you have a problem.”

While affordable housing has remained largely concentrated in Connecticut’s biggest municipalities, cities and towns’ sovereignty over their zoning laws has amplified the divide.

More than two dozen municipalities across Connecticut have enacted strict zoning ordinances prohibiting multi-family housing, a type of development housing advocates describe as the most effective way achieve affordability.

Other communities have fought efforts to create affordable housing within their borders, with residents often voicing concerns it will change the character of their town or bring traffic.

The state has long used the 1990 8-30g law — also known as Title 8 — as a measuring stick for evaluating Connecticut’s broad access to affordable housing. That law encourages, but does not require, all municipalities to have 10 percent of their housing stock deemed affordable.

Under the statute, developers who build affordable units can appeal to the courts to override local zoning codes in towns that don’t meet that threshold. Non-exempt municipalities can meet a four-year moratorium if they are successful in increasing their affordable housing stock by two percent.

In 2017, only 30 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities met or exceeded the 10 percent threshold, according to the latest Affordable Housing Appeals List.

Connecticut’s persistent problems in this area fall squarely amid a nationwide affordable housing crisis that has led states to tackle rising housing costs by building upward.

In 2016, Connecticut had 140,531 households whose incomes met the definition of “extremely low,” according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition. The NLIHC found the state had 36 affordable and available homes per 100 renter households in that category.

In another recent report, the NLIHC ranked Connecticut as having the ninth most expensive housing wage in the nation. It found that renters make an average of $17.38 an hour, while the full-time hourly wage needed to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment is $24.90.

That means those earning the $10.10 state minimum wage would have to work 99 hours a week to comfortably afford that apartment.

For people of color, however, the struggle to find affordable housing in safe communities with good schools is complicated by more than just a wage gap.

Redlining illegal, but discrimination persists 

When the federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, it ensured protection from race-based discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of a home.

But 50 years later, black homeownership is virtually unchanged and hovers just over 40 percent, according to an Economic Policy Institute report. That standstill has left blacks excluded from a major wealth-building tool and form of financial security.

“In this country, wealth was and still is built on housing and homeownership and that’s just a block that people of color, but black people specifically, have just been shut out of,” State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, said. “We have to talk about the things that impact a family and their ability to thrive, to achieve prosperity … or the American dream, and Zip code has a lot to do with that.”

Housing advocates say Connecticut is still coping with the consequences of “redlining,” a practice the federal government designed in the 1930s that allowed banks to refuse to finance home loans in distressed urban areas.

The original 1937 HOLC map of the Hartford region

The New Deal sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created color-coded maps that indicated where lenders could safely insure mortgages, segregating neighborhoods comprised of blacks and immigrants through demarcated red “hazardous” shading.

The federal Fair Housing Act outlawed that practice, but today, neighborhoods of color still do not receive loans at the same rates as their white counterparts, said Erin Kemple, the executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (CFHC).

Research by the Urban Institute published last February found Bridgeport has the fifth highest white and black homeownership gap among the 100 cities with the largest number of black households in the nation. Whites have a 76.5 percent homeownership rate, while blacks have a 34.1 percent rate, creating a 42.3 percent gap. Minneapolis has the highest disparity, with a 50 percent homeownership gap.

In the Hartford, West Hartford, and East Hartford area, the organization found that whites have a 75.8 percent homeownership rate compared to a 38.1 percent rate for blacks — a 37.7 percent gap. The gap is similar in New Haven and Milford, where whites have a 72 percent homeownership rate and blacks have a 36.7 percent rate.

Although homeownership among blacks ticked upward with the proliferation of subprime loans in 2006, their rate of homeownership fell drastically when the housing bubble burst two years later and many of those who owned homes suddenly saw their main assets disappear.

Since then, people of color have been steered into government-backed mortgages, which tend to be more expensive than conventional mortgages, Kemple said. That makes it more difficult for low-income families to buy homes or invest in maintaining them, she added.

Kemple’s organization has conducted mortgage lending race tests to examine whether whites and people of color experience different treatment when finding homes and applying for mortgages. CFHC used white and minority testers who have face-to-face meetings with loan officers, did walk-in tests of branch locations, and used email tests of lender forms.

Those investigations found that from 2010 to 2014, blacks and Latinos were denied home mortgages loans more often than whites, and 53 percent of all tests showed that the minority tester was treated worse than the white tester.

Connecticut has also remained physically segregated, with two of every three persons of color living in just 15 of the state’s 169 municipalities, according to an Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 2015 report by the Department of Housing and CFHC.

“What is clear is it will take years of effort to get those communities back to a place where people will choose to live there,” Kemple said. “The North End of Hartford, Bridgeport, New Haven have so much disinvestment that people who live there don’t have a choice or they … can’t move any place else because of discrimination.”

CFHC receives an average of 2,500 calls a year from people who believe they are the victim of housing discrimination, according to Kemple.

The state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities (CHRO) also fields complaints through its Housing Discrimination Unit.

The CHRO received 217 housing related complaints in fiscal year 2016. Sixty-five complaints cited a physical disability, while 33 were on the basis of race and another 32 corresponded to color.

The commission has fielded roughly the same level of housing complaints every year, according to CHRO spokeswoman Michelle Dumas Keuler.

Kemple said that discrimination often can manifest as a lack of responses to applications, or rejecting someone with a Section 8 voucher, or a landlord’s failure to return telephone calls after hearing a racially distinct voice on the phone.

Other times, landlords will not advertise in publicly available places or restrict their advertisements to white neighborhoods, making it more likely they will receive white applicants, Kemple said.

Many of the people who have come to CFHC for assistance are afraid to speak publicly about their experiences because they fear retaliation from current or future landlords, Kemple said.

Location, location, location

Ryan Caron King / WNPR

Christy Regis

As Regis and her daughter’s things remain packed away in storage, the single mother remains firm in her decision not to rent a home until she can afford one in a safe community.

“Even though times are tough, I don’t want her raised in an area that’s not safe,” Regis said.

Regis, who could remain on a waiting list for affordable housing in Westport for another three to four years, is determined to largely steer clear of urban areas and find a reasonably priced home in a low-crime suburb with decent schools.

But while Regis continues her search, Connecticut’s stock of federal- and state- subsidized units largely remains in areas with high crime and unemployment rates and low-performing schools.

Throughout his nearly eight years in office, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has made homelessness and affordable housing among his administration’s top priorities. The governor has repeatedly stated tackling those issues will promote family stability, spur job growth, and attract businesses and private investments.

Malloy embraced the Obama administration’s challenge for governors and mayors to eliminate veteran homelessness, leading Connecticut to become the second state to reach that objective in 2016. That achievement dovetailed with the state’s broader commitment to rehabilitate and create more affordable housing.

In 2012, Malloy committed $300 million toward a ten-year plan to revitalize Connecticut’s affordable housing stock within the State-Sponsored Housing Portfolio. The governor said he made that decision because not all of the public housing units that fell into disrepair needed to be replaced, and instead could be salvaged or converted.

Mark Pazniokas / Ctmirror.org file photo

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy

In an interview with the CT Mirror last month, Malloy said he believes people should be able to live in the communities where they work, and that “It’s not good for us as a society to live in communities strictly of poverty and strictly of wealth.”

“I’ve said build it where we can because I haven’t been able to move the legislature to take a position that everyone should,” Malloy said. “I also believe that we lived in a society that had turned its back on the affordable housing it had, and given the opportunity to build new or rehab existing housing in cities that were open to that, versus not doing anything, I chose to do something.”

The state has funded, created, or rehabilitated 21,000 affordable housing units since Malloy took office in 2011, according to DOH. The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority committed nearly $575 million in loans for affordable housing from 2011 through 2017.

And since 2011, the Malloy administration has invested funding toward the development of affordable housing in 103 municipalities, according to DOH spokesman Daniel Arsenault.

But despite the administration’s commitment to further affordable housing through different state administered subsidized housing programs and grants — it has been criticized for largely failing to bring subsidized affordable units beyond densely populated urban areas.

The housing department has used the Kirwan Institute’s opportunity mapping tool to show available resources across every community in Connecticut, including indicators like school performance, homeownership percentages, crime rates, job diversity and unemployment rates. The mapping rates areas on a five-level scale of “very high opportunity” to “very low opportunity.”

Typically, upward of 85 percent of government subsidized units are located in very low, low, or moderate opportunity areas, according to Open Community Alliance (OCA), a local housing advocacy organization.

Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein said affordable housing remains a tough issue on a local and legislative level, but it is critical for Connecticut residents and the state’s economy.

In an updated analysis, OCA, together with the Kirwan Institute and the CFHC, found 73 percent of blacks and Latinos live in low- and very-low-opportunity areas in Connecticut compared to 26 percent of whites and 36 percent of Asians.

Open Communities Alliance

An updated map by OCA, CFHC, and the Kirwan Institute shows the opportunity areas where people of color live

 

Klein said the department does not have any stated goal for the amount of affordable housing it would like to create or rehabilitate in high opportunity areas and does not plan to develop one.

The joint DOH and CFHC 2015 report notes that “historically, Connecticut’s numerous strategies to promote affordable housing throughout the years have largely focused on the creation of affordable housing rather than its location in a diversity of areas.”

Klein said the department is working hard to change that — a task she said involves changing the mindset of developers, municipal and state leaders, and Connecticut’s lawmakers.

“Here’s the thing, if we’re not getting applications from developers who are building in high opportunity areas and we can … give every incentive you could give, if we’re not getting those applications, we don’t control that,” Klein said.

The joint 2015 report states that 63 percent of all government-assisted housing under Title 8 “in 2011 is located in 20 municipalities that have disproportionately high minority populations.”

“Furthermore, 71 percent of the qualifying family units are in those same 20 municipalities. Only 29 percent of the qualifying family units are in municipalities that are disproportionately Non-Hispanic-White,” the report said.

Malloy’s administration has focused on crafting legislation to tackle strict municipal zoning regulations while simultaneously pushing back on attempts to loosen the state’s affordable housing standards.

Kyle Constable / CTMirror.org

Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury

State Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury, said he believes a bill the General Assembly passed in 2017 after narrowly overriding a veto by Malloy gives municipalities incentives to build more affordable housing. Malloy had argued it would do exactly the opposite.

The governor championed an unsuccessful bill in the last legislative session that would have pushed communities to end bans on multi-family housing.

Before it died, lawmakers stripped the bill of language that would withhold discretionary funding from towns that didn’t comply with its mandate requiring zoning regulations to provide for, rather than encourage, housing development opportunities to meet local and regional needs. The bill also would have eliminated a requirement the regulations be made to consider the “character” of a district.

Brian O’Connor, the director of public policy for Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), said the organization initially opposed the measure because it believed the bill was too punitive.

“I think actually everyone recognizes Connecticut is a high cost state and many communities are out of reach for some,” O’Connor said.

CCM supports examining policy decisions that would reduce municipalities’ dependence on property taxes and bolster alternative revenue sources to create more housing affordability, O’Connor said.

Local zoning power amplifies divide

The Sunday following a June 5 public hearing on a proposal to build a 37-unit affordable housing development in the picturesque shoreline community of Old Lyme, the Rev. Steve Jungkeit stood in the pulpit of the First Congregational Church and said he “found the entire evening depressing, and dismaying, in the extreme.”

More than 500 residents of the town had crammed the middle school auditorium earlier that week to hear details about the application from the Women’s Institute for Housing and Economic Development and HOPE Partnership to build affordable housing on two neighboring properties close to one of the town’s two I-95 exit ramps.

Residents who attended the hearing — and the hearings that followed — cited concerns about traffic and potential accidents, environmental issues, an ethical conflict on the part of one of the applicant’s attorneys, and the influx of students who would attend the local schools, but it was the tenor of that first hearing — one of “antipathy, spite and scorn” — that stood out to Jungkeit.

“A spirit of listening, or the posing of honest questions in a spirit of seeking to understand, was entirely absent,” said Jungkeit.

Those who supported the application believe it will bring much-needed socio-economic and racial diversity to the town.

Although the town’s zoning commission recently approved the application on a 3-2 vote, ongoing anger and concern about the project are likely to lead to litigation — making Old Lyme a microcosm of the argument over affordable housing that has played out in towns across Connecticut.

These local battles are evidence of an inescapable fact: the ability of low income families to move from urban to suburban areas is hampered not only by the location of state and federally subsidized housing, but by municipal zoning policies and the limited jurisdiction of housing authorities.

In Connecticut, municipalities are each tasked with crafting their own zoning policies, which, according to housing attorney Tim Hollister, gives cities and towns a great deal of authority in mapping residential areas and regions that accommodate multi-family housing.

Municipalities also have full discretion over zones that allow single-family, two-family, elderly and affordable housing.

Title 8 defines affordable housing as units that are either government-assisted or “deed-restricted,” where at least 15 percent are required to be rented for 40 years to families who make 60 percent or less of the median income, and an additional 15 percent must be set aside for families earning 80 percent or less of the median income.

The joint DOH and CFHC report states municipalities can also dictate large lot requirements and limitations on the number of units allowed per acre, among other ordinances. The report notes the average minimum lot size for a single-family development across the state is .52 acres, while for affordable housing developments it is 2.6 acres.

“Many other municipalities require 5 or more acres for multifamily and affordable developments regardless of the number of units, and have at least one zone that requires less than an acre for single-family units,” the report said.

Many wealthy suburbs have historically enacted very restrictive zoning regulations to prevent racial migration across borders, Hollister said.

Aside from those that bar it, 20 cities and towns allow multi-family housing, which is defined as three or more units, as a right under their zoning regulations. Another 122 allow it by special permit. (Bethlehem does not have zoning ordinances and Morris does not have multi-family zoning ordinances.)

Erin Boggs, the executive director of OCA, said allowing municipalities to determine their own zoning regulations has been detrimental to the creation of affordable housing. In some cases, she said, it has led to onerous, more expensive zoning ordinances—like requiring a large distance between multi-family housing and the roadway, known as a setback.

Clarice Silber / CTMirror.org

Open Communities Alliance Executive Director Erin Boggs.

“It’s been the driving force behind the segregation that we see right now in addition to the sort of government policy and subsidized housing,” Boggs said. “It leads to this sort of race to the bottom kind of scenario where every town is competing against every other town to see who can have, depending on your perspective, fewer low income people or fewer people of color.”

Towns across the state have gone to battle with affordable housing developers to fight attempts to build in their municipalities through local petitions, opposition testimony, and advocacy websites.

Those opposed to affordable housing developments often cite concerns that it will change the character of their town, create congestion, and erode local control over those decisions. But when taken to court, local zoning commissions have the burden of proving their denial of applications was necessary because of health or safety issues.

The dearth of affordable housing in suburban communities has not made things any easier for the people who run urban housing authorities and must contend daily with long waitlists for public housing units.

Karen DuBois-Walton, the executive director of the New Haven housing authority, said in any given year there are upward of 6,000 families on the city’s public housing waitlist. About 200 spots open up each year out of the city’s 2,500 units, as families typically stay in their units for a 12 to 13 year period.

DuBois-Walton said some families sit on the waiting list for a decade, and the housing authority’s informal polling suggests some of them go homeless, while large numbers share housing with family or friends. Others are severely rent burdened and spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

Housing authorities in Connecticut are currently restricted by law to serve the municipalities where they are located, which means they can only build units or assign a certain type of section 8 voucher within their jurisdiction. In order to bypass that restriction, the governing bodies of two separate municipalities must decide to collaborate and create a joint housing authority.

The DOH and CFHC 2015 report states very few housing authorities use that option, and because of that “municipal housing authority structure, funding for housing authorities generally must be used within municipal boundaries.”

The policy is yet another factor that has reinforced the concentration of affordable housing in Connecticut’s urban centers.

Fink, the PSC consultant, said there’s a mismatch of housing stock available in Connecticut—most towns have an abundance of single family homes but not enough buyers.

Fink said according to Malloy’s budget office, the grand list residential property went down or remained flat in 151 of the state’s 169 municipalities from 2008 through 2017.

“Here’s why that’s so important—all of these towns, about 90 percent of their revenue comes from property taxes, no sales tax, no local income tax,” Fink said. “You have a situation in Connecticut where there’s too many sellers and not enough buyers, therefore the value of property falls, the grand list shrinks, and municipalities either have to raise taxes or cut services.”

Boggs said changing the state’s affordable housing landscape and giving low income families the opportunity to move will come down to changing hearts and minds in towns and within the state legislature, while also adhering to state and federal fair housing laws.

“It’s as simple as that,” Boggs said. “And, you know in my experience in this state, it hasn’t been until the law is used in most instances that you see significant change in behavior.”

Reporter Keith M. Phaneuf contributed to this story.

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