Finding a decent place to live is one of America’s most troubling and enduring problems. Lately the press has been laying it out in spades, city by city, state by state. Some towns have actually been putting their backs into creating solutions.
But rarely in Connecticut.
Our Home Rule law pretty much allows towns to “maintain their character” by strictly controlling multifamily housing if they so desire. Most of the rich ones do so. This is one reason our cherished state is so “leafy.” People who cannot afford to own property with trees are invited to live somewhere else. Where? Don’t ask.
Some years ago in a fit of humanity the General Assembly tried to correct this problem. It passed a famous law, 8-30g (OK, famous if you live in a suburb under its litigation). That law told towns if they did not see to it that 10% of their housing units were affordable (according to careful definitions), then a developer could legally apply to build a project which bypassed their sacred density requirements and sue the town if denied. Naturally the health, safety, traffic and environmental stuff would still apply.
This scheme might have been called the Nuclear Option. It was a very explosive law. Dockets have not exactly been crammed with such cases, but there have been a lot. Some commendable projects have actually been built under its duress. Other suits have failed. Still other successful applicants have whipped off their masks of good will and offered to sell their court-approved sites to the town itself for an outrageous profit. Some such outflanked towns have chosen to pay the tribute and make the disputed property into a park or something else. In the end the number of new units completed under the law has been small.
Plainly the state needs a new model, maybe one based more on small arms fire rather than nukes. So let’s start small with the ECS, that state education grant which each town receives every year based on a truly algorithmic formula of need. Poor towns get a lot, rich towns, not so much. But every town gets something. Now let’s say that the state decides to condition this automatic annual grant on each town’s performance under the housing law that already says it must make sure that 10% of its units be affordable. Nothing complicated, you understand. Just that if only 1% of Filchburg is affordable, it only gets 10% of its grant. If 3.6% is affordable, then it gets 40% of its grant, and so on up to 10% affordable whereupon it gets the whole package.
Since the exclusionary towns don’t get that big a grant anyway, this loss would not be horrific if they decided forgo it. On the other hand it would put a very specific price tag, typically $400-500,000, on the luxury of excluding poorer people, and local citizens could make up their minds if they wanted to continue to pay. Money withheld would go into a state pot for affordable housing tax credits, always in demand. And if this penalty were not stern enough we could begin to look into withholding a portion of the state’s contribution to the local teacher retirement account
Nor would good old 8-30g be extinguished. This new proposal would simply add an additional sanction for a town to be its brother’s keeper. Also as towns gradually did the right thing and built some units, they could mount a more credible court defense against assertive developers under 8-30g. And in the end, as in a Bollywood movie, the whole cast would dance down the street because enough (well, maybe not quite) units had been built to accommodate ill-housed Nutmeggers who are suffering so much today.
So let’s all take a deep breath and DO something.
Bill Collins is a former Mayor of Norwalk.