A common argument among community development and affordable housing experts and advocates in Connecticut: “The high concentration of income-restricted subsidized housing in the Frog Hollow neighborhood in Hartford has harmed the neighborhood, prevented higher income people from moving in, and increased the concentration of poverty.”
Frog Hollow has a high concentration of housing subsidies. Open Communities Alliance reports that at least 60% of the housing units in Frog Hollow are income restricted. It is used as a prototypical example in Connecticut housing circles of the problem with concentrated housing subsidies. Income restrictions are placed on units financed through housing subsidies for decades after construction, leading to the potential for a concentration of subsidized units to determine the fate of a neighborhood for generations.
The evidence offered to support the claims about housing subsidy impacts in Frog Hollow is mostly anecdotal. A 2019 CT Mirror story, for example, details the experience of one Hartford-based engineer who had difficulty finding a place for his family to live in Frog Hollow because the only places available were income restricted.
The only data-based evidence offered to support the claim is found in the 2017 Open Communities Alliance Out of Balance report. To assess whether housing subsidies have contributed to increased poverty in Frog Hollow, Open Communities Alliance reports on the neighborhood poverty rate in 1980 and 2015, finding that the poverty rate increased from 37% to 50% in Frog Hollow during the time period. The use of 1980 as the starting date for this measurement is because the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), the largest federally funded affordable housing program, began in 1986. While acknowledging that it is difficult to know the cause of the increase, Open Communities Alliance posits the question of whether housing subsidies have contributed to the increased poverty rate.
The census data that has become available since the report came out in 2017 shows that the poverty rate and median household income in Frog Hollow has improved since 2015. The table below shows the poverty rate and median household income in the three census tracts that roughly comprise the Frog Hollow neighborhood.
|Census Tract||Poverty 2000||Poverty 2014||Poverty 2017||Poverty 2019||Income 2000||Income 2014||Income 2017||Income 2019|
Table notes: All dollar amounts are in 2021 dollars. The 2000 data is from the Decennial Census. The 2014, 2017, and 2019 data is from the American Community Survey five-year estimates. Poverty status is for population ages 18-64. Income is median household income. The 2020 census data is not yet available.
The poverty rate increased and income decreased between 2000 and 2014 in Frog Hollow, but the poverty rate decreased and income increased steadily between 2014 and 2019. It is likely that the large increase in poverty seen in 2015 data and cited in the Out of Balance report was due to the fallout from the 2008 economic crisis, which hit Hartford’s low-income neighborhoods particularly hard. It is possible that Frog Hollow’s poverty rate and income levels were still recovering from the economic crisis in 2014 and 2015 and that the economic status of the neighborhood improved as the economy continued to improve throughout the 2010s.
This new data shows that the poverty rate in Frog Hollow is now lower than it was in 1980 before the LIHTC program began. This data is not presented as evidence that housing subsidies have improved the neighborhood, but to add nuance to the argument that housing subsidies have harmed the neighborhood.
In the absence of further research, we must acknowledge that the evidence we have is largely anecdotal and that we don’t really know the impact housing subsidies have had in Frog Hollow.
Additionally, caution must be used in making any neighborhood a prototypical example of how housing subsidies impact a neighborhood. The literature’s predictions about the impact of housing subsidies on neighborhoods is mixed, with some studies finding positive neighborhood impacts resulting from housing subsidies and other studies finding neutral or negative neighborhood impacts.
Lan Deng, Associate Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan, suggests in a 2009 paper that the variation in the literature may be due in part to variations in methodology, but that it may also reflect the true variation that exists in the impact of affordable housing on neighborhoods. Deng’s study of the impact of LIHTC investments in Miami-Dade County supports the hypothesis that the impact of housing subsidies depends on neighborhood context. Deng found the most positive impacts in high poverty neighborhoods, the least positive impacts in middle class neighborhoods, and mixed impacts in working class neighborhoods. My fall 2020 research on the impact of affordable housing subsidies in Hartford and New Haven reflects the variation in the literature. The study found that the impact that can be expected from affordable housing development depends on neighborhood conditions.
I think it’s essential that community development organizations in Connecticut cities are thinking about how to use funding streams that are less restrictive to allow people of all income levels to live in neighborhoods like Frog Hollow. I also think it’s important that advocates continue to push for more affordable housing across the state, especially in areas that have very little affordable housing. But, as developers and advocates continue to pursue these efforts, we need more research on how past affordable housing subsidies have impacted urban neighborhoods in Connecticut.
We must also remember that housing subsidies likely impact different neighborhoods in different ways and keep this local variation in mind when pursuing policies and strategies.
Gabby Nelson is the Assistant Director of Urban Engaged Learning at Trinity College.