This article was produced in partnership with Propublica through the Local Reporting Network.

Frustrated with the lack of options for low-income families in Connecticut’s tony suburbs, the governor and the leader of the state Senate are calling for new measures to entice towns to build more affordable housing.

INVISIBLE WALLS Connecticut’s Separate and Unequal Housing

Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, said that he is poised to tie state spending on transportation upgrades in affluent communities — such as new or renovated train stops — to local approval of more affordable housing projects.

“If you want some funding for that transportation hub, I want affordable housing to be a big part of that,” the governor said.

The comments, made during a wide-ranging interview taped Wednesday for the CT Mirror’s “Steady Habits” podcast, follow a series of articles published by the Mirror and ProPublica showing the lengths wealthy towns have gone to block affordable housing, and by extension the people who need it. These exclusive zoning requirements have rendered Connecticut one of the most segregated states in the nation.

The governor’s comments appear to be a retreat from his administration’s previous stance, which emphasized local control, and came as other leaders in the state demanded action.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven, said that breaking up pockets of poverty will be a priority in the legislative session that begins in less than two weeks. 

“There are too many communities in this state that have ignored their obligation entirely to accept some affordable housing,” Looney said. “We have to break through the hypocrisy of the reasons that people give in many cases for not supporting family housing in their communities.

“We have to continue to bear witness to the fact that we do not have the degree of affordable housing that we should,” he continued. “And that communities should not be able to rely upon local zoning and local practices to the extent that they are right now, to bar the development of that in their communities. It’s an issue where the needs of the state need to take precedence over the needs of — or the wishes — of individual towns.”

Looney’s remarks came during a press conference the Senate Democratic Caucus held Thursday to unveil the top issues they plan to take on this legislative session.

“We have to continue to bear witness to the fact that we do not have the degree of affordable housing that we should. It’s an issue where the needs of the state need to take precedence over the needs of — or the wishes — of individual towns.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney

The mayor of Hartford, a city where 39% of the housing is reserved for poor people, said the state needs to abandon policies that have left neighborhoods throughout the city segregated.

“We talk always in our cities about combating poverty and trying to help families lift themselves up, but the truth is that we have a high poverty rate in our communities, in part, because we have — by policy — made this a community that can only be poor,” Mayor Luke Bronin said during a press conference last Friday in Hartford’s Clay Arsenal neighborhood. 

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin at Westbrook Village last June. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

It was the first time that Bronin, just two weeks into his second term, publicly focused on housing policy that has fueled the concentrated poverty in Connecticut’s cities. The press conference, called in response to local residents’ simmering frustrations with their housing conditions, gave the mayor a venue to air his concerns. 

“I’ve thought about this for a while, but the more time I spend in this office, the more I see the profound consequences of our policy choices on housing, and on development, that have resulted in some of the starkest disparities you’ll find anywhere in the nation,” Bronin said in a subsequent interview.

“The more time I spend in this office, the more I see the profound consequences of our policy choices on housing, and on development, that have resulted in some of the starkest disparities you’ll find anywhere in the nation.”

Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin

Bronin was joined last Friday by Connecticut’s U.S. senators, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal, both Democrats. They called on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to build more mixed-income housing in Hartford, instead of focusing on housing entirely reserved for the poor. They also asked the federal agency to raise the amount Section 8 vouchers are worth, so that voucher holders can afford to live in better neighborhoods, and to increase the enforcement of fair housing laws to reduce discrimination.

The Mirror and ProPublica reported this month that while federal Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers were created years ago with the intention of giving recipients a choice about where to live, the subsidy often traps people in struggling communities.

Bronin and the governor met Tuesday to discuss specific steps that can be taken.

“I want to get more market-rate housing here in Hartford,” Lamont said on the podcast taped Wednesday. “I don’t want this to be a place [just] for poor people. I want this to be a place for everybody.”

The governor pointed to communities like Simsbury and others in Fairfield County, including his hometown of Greenwich, which were featured in the Mirror and ProPublica’s investigation. 

“You know, I think they are nuts not to allow their downtowns to develop a little bit, not to have more multifamily housing, not to have more affordable housing, not to allow more of their community to live where they work,” he said.

“You know, I think they are nuts not to allow their downtowns to develop a little bit, not to have more multifamily housing, not to have more affordable housing, not to allow more of their community to live where they work.”

Gov. Ned Lamont

Local officials in towns that have rejected affordable housing point to frail public infrastructure, clogged streets, a lack of sidewalks and concerns about overcrowding as reasons for denying projects. 

Lamont’s administration has not always been so forceful. Asked numerous times over the course of his first year in office to discuss his affordable housing policy, the governor said he preferred to leave decisions about what gets developed — or doesn’t — to local officials.  

A Carrot or a Stick?

The Lamont administration and Senate Democrats agree that more incentives are needed for towns to build more low-income housing. They have different views, though, on whether those who don’t should face consequences.

“I would like to start with a carrot to tell you the truth,” Lamont said.

Either way, the director of the House Progressive Caucus, which comprises 44 of the 151 members of Connecticut’s House of Representatives, released a statement on behalf of the caucus saying lawmakers are just pleased this debate is finally being brought to the forefront.

“The Progressive Caucus is supportive of any legislative efforts to make housing more affordable,” the statement from Eli Sabin, the director of the progressive coalition, reads. He pointed to numerous bills that its members have introduced in previous legislative sessions to tackle exclusive zoning by town officials and fair housing legislation. “We are committed to advancing meaningful bills again this year.”

Relying on incentives, however, has its skeptics.

Erin Boggs, Executive Director, and Taniqua Huguley, Outreach Director, for Open Communities Alliance (a Connecticut non-profit group) in September during a community housing forum in Hartford. Monica Jorge

Civil rights attorneys said they believe linking transportation funding to affordable housing will have only a small impact. That’s because some affluent communities aren’t all that interested in bringing in public transportation, said Erin Boggs, the leader of Open Communities Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group in Connecticut.

“They are perfectly happy without this money,” she said. “In the history of segregation and civil rights in our country, this cannot be accomplished by incentives alone. We absolutely need a well thought through system to address towns who do not comply.”

Likewise, State Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor and co-chair of the legislature’s Housing Committee, said that he prefers using incentives, but there are communities where there is a role for a firmer approach.

“Maybe that’s a place where we use a stick,” he said.

Help us investigate: Are you concerned about affordable housing in your community in Connecticut? ProPublica and The Connecticut Mirror are spending the year investigating. Here’s how to get in touch.

John Dankosky, the host of CT Mirror’s “Steady Habits” podcast, contributed to this report.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas is a staff reporter for The Connecticut Mirror covering education and housing. Email her at jrabe@ctmirror.org and follow her on Twitter @jacquelinerabe.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

Join the Conversation

9 Comments

  1. Relocating families to housing outside cities to promote higher levels of integration, is a worthy cause. However, do not allow politicians to fool taxpayers and voters, to take their eyes off the ball.
    Moving families outside of our urban cities to reduce poverty, crime, and failing school systems doesn”t fix these problems in our cities. All it does is export and dilute the problems and focus. Please make politicians fix what ails our cities. Do not allow them to mask and dilute the problems.

    1. Hello Ralphiec88,
      I dont disagree. However, how does exporting the problem fix what is a core shortcoming of today’s solutions for crime, poverty and underperforming schools in our cities. Moving populace, and diluting the core does not fix things. iIt instead, masks and hides it. Politicians in our cities use the poor and minorities as chess pawns. When the want money, they invite them in. When they create issues. They attempt to export them out.

  2. Lamont has the attention span of a 5 year old. Where are the tax relief initiatives you promised?
    He now is wading into this pool somehow tying his toll plan into it. A couple of weeks ago he was wading into the school desegregation pool with clearly no plan.
    He is still searching for his political footing…

  3. Governor Lamont, I invite you to visit me in Darien to see the 3 fantastic TOD developments happening here in close proximity to our train stations. These projects are transformational for our town and region. Hundreds of units of multi-family housing with an affordable requirement that exceeds the state standard. Jayme Stevenson, First Selectman, Town of Darien.

    1. Dear Ms Stevenson
      I reviewed the rental rates at the Heights and Royale in the Town of Darien and the average rental cost “is not low income”. Additionally. the average per capita income in the town of Darien is over $107,000. Can you please provide the number and average monthly cost of the available low income rentals available in the Town of Darien of which you speak?

  4. It’s almost as if he agrees with whatever ilk someone presents and then he says “we’ll get right on that”, Next comment he makes is the tie to putting in tolls and raising taxes. It’s like every day is his first and he doesn’t know the state of the State or what the people really want.

  5. If you move these folks out of the cities. That may take away from voted from the dems when these people learn they don’t need gov’t to provide for them.

  6. I would like to read about some success stories where true low-income housing has been built in wealthier suburban towns. Success for me would be measured by condition of the properties after 5 years, success of the children in school, crime rate changes in those neighborhoods, etc. Two related things worry me……….
    I don’t think exporting poverty is a root cause solution and this may reduce the focus on root cause solutions.
    There would seem to be a risk that exporting the housing location may result in exporting some of the ills that are common in some urban areas.
    I certainly could be mistaken, which is why evaluating some examples would be helpful.

  7. Lamont should set an example and have these low income affordable housing in his neighborhood.If he’s going to talk the talk lets see him walk the walk!

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