Julianne Varacchi / Connecticut Public

Connecticut has a massive shortage of homes, and Gov. Ned Lamont has belatedly woken up to this reality. Despite shrugging off this problem for years, the facts are now too stark to ignore: decades of anti-growth local policies has meant the housing stock has been unable to keep pace with demand.

Housing inventories are at record lows, our rental vacancy rate is among the lowest in the country, rents are up 10-20%, and working class renters are being displaced and impoverished. Post-Covid, demand for homes has grown far more than population figures alone would suggest, as families seek larger spaces and single renters give up roommates for better work-from-home environments. Without expanding supply, any other housing policy is a Band-Aid solution as people compete over the same limited stock of homes either through higher prices or waitlists.

Dice Oh

Governor Lamont sees himself as a pro-business, pro-development guy, but so far his rhetoric is far too timid for the task at hand. Businesses can’t fill jobs because workers can’t find places to live, but Lamont is too afraid to challenge the wealthy NIMBY homeowners who have captured local planning and zoning commissions and COGs (councils of government).

Their misguided insistence on “local control”—the ability of existing homeowners to maintain segregation and deny homes for newcomers— has become an ideological sacrament. The anti-housing NIMBY cult doesn’t care about skyrocketing rents, displacement, or where the next generation of citizens will live. What they want is a commitment to no change in the built environment regardless of societal costs. They will not hesitate to throw every excuse in the book (Neighborhood character! Sewage! Stormwater runoff! Historic preservation! Shadows! Crime! Parking! Congestion!) to block homes, particularly denser multifamily structures that are far more environmentally-friendly than the car-dependent, sprawling suburban footprint that the current land use regime mandates.

Connecticut is at risk of falling behind on housing. Other states across the country, including our neighbors, are taking the lead, aggressively pushing for housing supply expansion by invoking state power over local zoning.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker passed a transit-oriented upzoning bill in 2021 to legalize more homes across transit stations, and current Gov. Maura Healey is redoubling efforts to grow the housing stock. New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul is promoting a bold state-wide zoning reform that would legalize more multifamily homes around commuter rail stations in exclusionary suburbs, a long-overdue policy given that the state just spent $12 billion to improve rail access to Long Island with the East Side Access project.

Meanwhile, Lamont seems to think that sitting down with mayors and politely asking local anti-housing planning boards to do their part is a solution, as if legalizing homes were an unwanted chore you’re asking a teenage son to do. He’s either naive or ill-informed about how this works, and isn’t willing to make tough decisions.

Reform will never come from localities because localities have no incentive to reform. Many local boards, particularly in wealthy areas, are an extremely unrepresentative subset of society: largely retired wealthy homeowners with a strong bias toward stasis and no desire to produce opportunities for the next generation of people who don’t currently own homes.

What Connecticut needs is strong leadership to cut through the local squabbling and set clear regional targets for housing supply. Mandates that legalize a much greater volume of development near commuter rail stations need to be a priority. Towns that benefit from rail connections to the country’s largest job market should not be allowed to hoard opportunity with oppressive low-density zoning mandates that block new homes.

Further, towns cannot be allowed to get away with massive minimum lot sizes, excessive parking requirements, extortionate permitting fees, extended and wasteful public hearings, and other bad-faith planning tools used to make new housing development financially infeasible. Public subsidies and incentives cannot work if towns are able to say “no” to any project. There is plenty of private financing available to build homes at scale if it were legally feasible to do so.

Governor Lamont needs to decide now whether he wants Connecticut to be a country club with luxury amenities for rich homeowners and an impoverished working class fleeing to lower-cost states, or a vibrant economy with growing cities where employers want to locate, that makes room for hard-working young people, new families, and immigrants. It remains to be seen whether he has the courage to carry about his stated vision of growth and prosperity, or whether he will retreat to the smug complacency of the housing-secure.

Dice Oh is a resident of Stamford and a former member of the CTMirror Community Editorial Board.