Much of Connecticut's abandoned industrial space can be repurposed. Dan Smolnik

Connecticut’s state’s housing shortage is profound.

Our state’s housing shortage, especially its shortage of affordable housing, is well established. As reported in this newspaper by the inimitable Tom Condon, Connecticut’s housing shortage is persistent and without an apparent near term solution.

Dan Smolnik

I often hear economic development authorities around the state announce, sometimes with a certain political unease, that their town simply has no remaining buildable land. Hence, they, lament, there is no room for any new housing, let alone affordably priced dwellings.

Change to local zoning rules is the favored systemic solution to the housing shortage. Municipalities have broad discretion in those rules and building type and use are often strictly separated by zone.

This is especially the case with industrial and manufacturing zones. Since 1917, when the Connecticut General Assembly granted the town of Windsor the authority to establish a Town Plan and a Planning Commission, and in the enabling act acknowledged that the town had the authority to consider the character, as well as the location and dimensions of proposed construction, Connecticut towns and cities have been geographically separating manufacturing, residential, and other uses of land within their boundaries.

In those days, municipal planning and zoning were new concepts, soon officially promoted by then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover’s Advisory Committee on City Planning and Zoning in the 1922 Zoning Primer which was mimeographed and mailed to virtually every town in the country. Connecticut’s Supreme Court pronounced the Windsor Town Plan Act lawful in 1920 in the case of Town of Windsor v. Whitney and, in 1926, the U.S. Supreme Court in Village of Euclid, Ohio v. Ambler Realty did the same with that town’s planning ordinance. In both cases, the courts freely interchanged the new notions of planning and zoning.

In the years before the 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act, often called by its practical effect, the Interstate Highway Act, industry had to be located along the only available modern conduit for shipping goods and materials — the railroad. Trucking had to follow local roads and was slow and inefficient. Few factory workers had automobiles (travel through the older manufacturing employee sections of cities like New Haven and Hartford and observe how few houses have garages) and most walked or, in some cases, took a tram to the factory. Finished goods went by rail to the shipyard or to the next rail terminal. Getting a rail spur built to one’s factory loading door was a considerable commercial advantage.

The noisy and smoke-belching factories were, after the 1920s, promptly confined to the margins of municipalities as real estate developers leveraged their influence to support the value of the houses they were building in the emerging suburbs. Cities still hosted the majority of manufacturing operations, but that was changing as people who could afford it moved further away from the factories while those enterprises still needed access to labor. The growing towns simply used their new planning and zoning authority to isolate non-residential activities to sections of town that were not as attractive for residential or farm use.

Soon after, much of the heavy industry moved to southern states. New England local manufacturing has come to require less space and intrude less on the local environment. It is no longer confined to railroads and canals and has moved to sparsely populated areas where it can find highway access and tax abatements. The Connecticut Department of Transportation (then the Highway Department) found in a 1958 study that the most important factors to industrial business siting were access to land, sewers, and rail service. Now, the critical site issues are highway access, availability of skilled labor, and energy resources.

Nonetheless, the bricks and mortar of the 19th and early 20th centuries remain intact, long after their occupants have gone. This leaves Connecticut, once called by George Washington the “Provision State,” with a peculiarly high amount of land, once set aside for manufacturing, now lying fallow as vacant space.

Connecticut has, on average, the highest vacancy rates in its industrial zones in the northeast. Our vacancy rates in those zones are fully two thirds higher than the national average.

This works out to fully 6.8 million square feet of vacant space. That’s just the built-out space and doesn’t include the surrounding land, empty parking lots, and unused access roads and driveways. The deserted manufacturing space, sitting in zones where virtually no other use is allowed, translates to 159 acres of vacant land with little likelihood of ever being used as zoned. Not incidentally, those empty acres also remain effectively excluded from the grand lists of their host towns, thereby shifting the tax burden onto the other residents and businesses.

In this context, we should consider the need for housing and Connecticut’s decade-long rise to now claim the worst housing shortage in the country representing a need of around 85,000 dwelling units.

This empty building space alone, at a repurposed multifamily occupancy rate of 30 units per acre, solves 5.5 percent of our housing crisis. When we include the associated real estate also wasted by disuse, we approach 10% of the space needed for housing, trapped in zones that preclude their needed deployment.

The zoning change conversation is already underway. The dialogue should also include review of the allocation of vacant industrial and manufacturing zoned land in the towns where it can make a difference.

Dan Smolnik is a tax attorney and a member of the Hamden Economic Development Commission. Any views expressed herein are solely his own.