For decades, Connecticut has suffered from anemic economic growth and its attendant fiscal problems. The causes, it is said, are various: an aging population, lack of an anchor city, outmigration to other states and, of course, over-regulation. For the last decade we’ve had a live experiment as to the causes and, it turns out, over-regulation is the prime suspect. However, the culprit is one specific type of regulation: Zoning.
The results of the experiment arrived in the 2020 Census. Connecticut’s population grew a paltry 0.9% from 2010, about 32,000 people, 46th among the states. If you believe that’s characteristic of New England states, then consider our neighbors. Massachusetts grew 7.4% and a whopping 482,000 people – fully 15 times our population growth – and even Rhode Island, with less than a third of our population, added more people, 44,000, and at a much higher rate, 4.4%. Furthermore, most of this growth took place outside Boston and Providence.
These changes in population result directly from the increase in each state’s housing stock, which is the best way to measure the aggregate impact of zoning policy. If the zoning in most towns suppresses the construction of housing, then the housing stock won’t increase much, regardless of demand. In Massachusetts, where the state has long overseen local zoning far more actively than in Connecticut, the housing stock grew by 6.8%, or over 200,000 units. In Rhode Island, the housing stock grew 4.3%. But in Connecticut, it grew only 2.8%.
A town-by-town look at the census data further demonstrates the link between population growth, housing construction and zoning. Nearly 100% of Connecticut’s population growth was concentrated in four municipalities – Stamford, Norwalk, Danbury and New Haven – and there was no change in total in the rest of the state. Unsurprisingly, these four towns accounted for a third of all new housing units.
Housing gets built where there is demand and zoning that enables its construction at scale. It doesn’t get built, regardless of demand, where the zoning makes it impossible or nearly impossible to build. There is intense demand to live in our affluent suburbs – just look at their house prices – but the housing stock barely budged in them. In some, it even declined. Flat supply is the telltale sign that zoning in most Connecticut towns is suppressing housing creation, notwithstanding the well-publicized construction of a project here or there.
Stamford, where I live and work, demonstrates the impact of more people living in more housing. We added 6,500 housing units and 13,000 people from 2010 to 2020, a big chunk of all growth statewide. We have a more vibrant downtown, more services like new restaurants and food markets, and a larger labor pool for area business.
Not coincidentally, nearly all of the state’s new large employers have chosen to locate in Stamford. Furthermore, this growth has had a positive fiscal impact, something I know well the as chair of our Board of Finance since 2015. Like the state, Stamford has had sharply rising pension obligations, and we were able to increase pension funding while holding tax increases down because, unlike the state, we could spread the impact across more people occupying more taxable real estate.
It is not a workable state economic policy to confine all growth to a few municipalities, and that is the point of Fair Share. The individual decisions of most towns to choke off housing growth is self-defeating; it’s choking the entire state. Fair Share creates a system that requires towns to re-zone for the construction of new housing at the scale of hundreds or thousands of units, not a few dozen a year. It gives towns the freedom and control to determine where and at what density those units will be constructed. Fair Share has worked effectively in New Jersey since the 1970’s and the moratorium provisions of 8-30g are proof that towns will re-zone on their own to permit new multifamily housing, if given an imperative to do so.
Fair Share works. Economic stagnation in Connecticut is, and has always been, by choice. Let’s choose another way.
Richard Freedman is president of Garden Homes Management, a family real estate business based in Stamford, and chairman of the Stamford Board of Finance. Garden Homes owns and has developed numerous affordable housing projects throughout Connecticut.