If you want to make your local Board of Finance member shudder, tell her that you moved to town for the great schools, but you’re planning to move away as soon as your kids graduate. Although many residents don’t realize it, while kids are in school, their household costs their town substantially more in educational spending than they pay into the budget in taxes.
To get budgets to balance without punishingly high tax rates, towns need residents of all ages, life-stages, and life-plans —single people, childless couples of all ages, empty-nesters, and age-in-placers as well as families with school-age children.
This is not to shame parents who move to towns where they believe their kids will get a good education. We all want what’s best for our kids! The problem, instead, is that because housing supply and diversity are extremely limited in Connecticut, families often end up with more house or yard than they will want or can afford in the long run. Because their town doesn’t have a supply of smaller, denser housing close to Main Street, they end up moving away. Some might prefer to age in place in their current house if they could rent out some of their extra space.
Unfortunately, many towns prohibit or over-regulate the creation of such “accessory dwelling units” in neighborhoods zoned for single-family houses. So they, too, end up moving away.
Too much of the new housing in most Connecticut towns is built for two-parent households with multiple children. Such houses are best-suited for only a relatively brief period in that family’s life. A consideration of demographic trends over the past 30 years in Connecticut show that this group and this life stage represent a shrinking proportion of the population. Our state is aging and young adults are moving out of the state —Connecticut has net out-migration of those aged 18-29. Meanwhile, childbearing is down, and millennials are starting families later than previous generations. Yet despite these population trends, the housing supply in Canton has gone in the other direction —in 2010, 80% of housing units in town were single-family, up from 75% in 1980 (when school-aged children made up a higher proportion of the population).
For our towns, this mismatch between the type of housing being created and the trends in population is a fiscal nightmare. The single, the young professionals, the couples who choose to be childless, as well as all those many empty-nested baby boomers would make net contributions to a town’s coffers —but they’re not moving in because we’re not building housing that works for them. We want to maintain the quality of our schools —that’s what many of our residents came here for and what they value. But to do so with such a restricted housing supply, our only choice is to keep increasing taxes. With property taxes ever increasing on those big houses on big lots, the folks who moved here for the schools are even more inclined to move away when their kids graduate. So the cycle continues.
It would be better all around if there were a greater diversity of housing types being produced in our towns. The way to have good schools and fiscal stability is to offer housing that matches the demography of the state and the nation. What if millennials could buy or rent part of a cute duplex close to the center of town? What if we made village living, with walking and biking, a real option? What if those with elderly parents could easily move them into newly divided in-law apartments in their existing houses? What if empty-nesters had plenty of choices for downsizing without leaving town?
Why aren’t more different types of housing being built to match these changing demographics? In a word, zoning. Most Connecticut towns have zoning regulations that favor the construction of large, expensive houses on big lots while severely restricting or even prohibiting the construction of multi-family housing or houses on small lots. While single-family housing is allowed by right on 90% of the land in the state, two-family houses are allowed on only 27.5% of the land, and three- or more- family houses on less than 3%. Large lot size requirements (often two or more acres) make the predominantly single-family houses more expensive, both to buy and in property taxes. Strict regulations limit whether and how homeowners can add an accessory dwelling unit.
How can we fix this dilemma? Support zoning reforms —in your town and at the state level— that increase the diversity of housing types in your town. Ask your state legislators and the governor to support legislation such as SB 1024 that would encourage the creation of diverse types of housing for the diversity of people we should hope to attract and keep in our towns.
If you want to make your Board of Finance member smile, tell her you moved here for the schools, but you’re going to do everything you can to promote a diversity of housing options that will allow you to stay and contribute your talent —as well as your tax dollars— to the town long after your kids have flown.
Katie Kenney is a Member of the Canton Board of Finance.