As members of a group dedicated to informing residents of the 169 towns and cities of Connecticut, we strongly disagree with the characterization of a new study from the Open Communities Alliance that is focused on the so-called impediments related to single-family zoning.
It is also worth noting that Connecticut already has a commission looking into these issues but instead of participating in substantive conversations to increase housing opportunities in a responsible way, developers and housing activists continue to stoke division, inject race and other divisive attacks rather than honestly address the valid concerns of local communities.
At a high level, market value is market value and individuals, and families make numerous cost-based decisions every day, including where to buy food and what to buy, whether to bring lunch from home to work, what type of car to purchase, and housing choices are no different.
For example. it is common for individuals just out of college to live with others in cities to save on housing costs. It is also common to trade a shorter commute to get more house or a bigger yard. One can see on a trend line provided by Western Connecticut Council of Governments that diversity expands from cities outward geographically as housing preferences and individual economic circumstances change over time.
Fairfield County is a prime example of this. Looking at DesegregateCT’s “Zoning Atlas”, Fairfield County has a much higher percentage of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) than the rest of the state due to its proximity to the economic engine of a highly diverse New York City.
For example, in New Canaan, there are a significant number of reservoirs, watershed areas and wetlands in their four-acre zoning. In fact, every town in Connecticut has its own unique natural resources and challenges to development that local planning and zoning members are best tasked with addressing.
It is very concerning that multiple closely affiliated housing advocacy groups like DesegregateCT, Regional Planning Association and Open Communities Alliance are focused on promoting one-size-fits-all state mandated, top-down policies that will encourage the building of mostly high density, market value residential apartments in downtowns, without much “affordability.” Is there adequate demand to support doubling the entire housing stock of most suburban towns with market value apartments?
If passed, the proposed HB 5204 (so-called “Fair Share bill) and HB 5429 proposals will turn every suburban downtown into a small city, regardless of the lack of infrastructure, environment, historical areas, and availability of jobs. There is no consideration of what doubling the entire housing stock with high rise apartments in downtowns will do, potentially creating greater congestion, water runoff and traffic, and yet residents will still need cars to get around. Build it and they will come is a fool-hardy strategy.
Just because you create more affordable homes in suburbs does not mean the town itself is affordable.
The reality is that many residents make economic decisions to travel by car to other nearby towns to purchase cheaper gas, food, clothing, etc. In addition, many suburbs lack adequate public transit to even neighboring towns to facilitate this. As stated by Danielle Dobin, Chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission in Westport, HB5429 “is not true transit-oriented development,” as it does not consider the need for commercial developments and businesses in downtowns in order to sustain a vibrant economy in the downtowns.
New Canaan started a housing fund decades ago and a percentage of the cost of every building project in New Canaan supports this fund that is used to create new affordable housing. The state has provided little funding to build in the communities, like New Canaan, that are attempting to build affordable housing units through the New Canaan Housing Authority.
In fact, Gov. Ned Lamont put the state on a “debt diet” in 2018, which froze expected seed funding to New Canaan for a shovel ready 100-unit affordable housing project at Canaan Parish. This delayed development while New Canaan needed to search for other federal funding sources to start the project. One can see from Gov. Lamont’s recent press release in April 2021 of state funding for affordable projects that most of it goes to Hartford, New Haven, and other large cities outside Fairfield County.
Further, the state’s public policies prevent portability of housing vouchers outside of a municipality’s own housing authority. So, is it the state’s public policies that are creating the unintended consequences and concentration of poverty? Shouldn’t those bad policies be addressed first before creating ineffective one size fits all solutions that do not address the unique circumstances of every municipality and do not actually create needed affordability?
The barriers to development of affordable housing and the significantly higher development and land costs that exist in Fairfield County cannot be ignored. Effective public policy on zoning begins by working together with ALL local municipalities, not just allowing the legislative leadership from the largest cities to have an outsized voice in the discussion and to receive outsized funding for the development of new affordable housing from the state’s coffers.
Effective public policy is created by bringing all stakeholders to the table, not just the numerous affiliated and sometimes builder-funded housing advocacy groups, to create workable, effective solutions that take into account the barriers to development of affordable housing: cost, scarcity of land, lack of true local public transit to neighboring communities, infrastructure limitations, etc. Further, a parallel plan should be focused on reinvigorating our cities outside of Fairfield County, like Hartford that has the needed infrastructure and local public transit, but is seeing population decline due to ineffective public policies resulting in businesses and opportunity leaving Connecticut.
Make no mistake, this is a David and Goliath conflict, and the heavily funded housing advocacy NGO’s and legislators from the largest cities are bullying the residents of Connecticut and pushing for ineffective state mandated zoning legislation that will not fix the lack of affordability in Connecticut. It doesn’t have to be this way. Tell all legislators and Gov. Lamont to vote no on poor zoning policies including the HB5429, HB5204, HB5409, which allows a housing authority in one town to build in another town. Further, the residents of Connecticut must stand up and make a choice this November.
Land is finite and unique, and if residents do nothing or continue with the status quo, these bills will permanently change the landscape of CT’s beloved 169 municipalities. Connecticut residents must demand better from legislative leadership and vote for leaders that will enact real, workable solutions.
Maria Weingarten of New Canaan, Peter McGuinness of Darien, Tara Restieri of Greenwich and Alexis Harrison of Fairfield are members of CT169Strong.