Will Viederman speaks at a podium with Karen-Dubois Walton standing in the back.
Officials from New Haven Housing Authority/ Elm City Communities speaking at a press conference Monday about affordable housing. Donato Davis / CT Mirror

A new report shows high demand for affordable housing in New Haven as more young people move into the city — a demand the report says could be met by making changes to the city’s zoning ordinances.

The ‘Breaking Ground’ document, released by Elm City Communities, details the current state of the city’s housing market and proposes solutions to the existing problems.

“New Haven’s housing crisis is severe and New Haven’s housing crisis is wide ranging,” said Karen Dubois-Walton, president of Elm City Communities, New Haven’s housing authority. “We heard very clearly the pain it causes is immediate and dire and it requires urgency of action.”

Elm City Communities serves over 14,000 individuals and over 6,000 families find affordable housing through initiatives of public housing, housing choice vouchers, and low-income housing tax credits.

Will Viederman, housing policy manager at Elm City Communities and the primary author of the report, said between 2010 and 2019 the city became more affordable to live in as rent burden rates dropped. The rent burden rate is a measure of the number of households that pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs.

However, this progress was stalled during the pandemic as rent prices began to increase faster than wages and more young people, ages 18 to 34, began looking for homes in the city, dropping vacancy rates to below 3% and spiking rent prices, he said. 

“The city’s economy is growing, people are making more money. But, when there’s not enough vacancy, that extra income gets swallowed up in housing costs to keep rent growth below income growth,” he said. “The city needs vacant homes, and to do that as the city is growing, we need to build new homes.” 

New Haven has approved less than 5,000 homes to be built in the period between 2010 and 2019, according to the report. Viederman however, estimates that the city needs to construct 8,400 new homes by 2030 in order to solve the current problems.

Viederman’s report proposed several steps the city could take to bring about the needed change. These include: eliminating parking requirements; shrinking the citywide lot size requirements to a minimum of 1,400 square feet; and changing zoning codes to allow for more housing developments in exclusionary neighborhoods.

However, Viederman’s ideas may face challenges. Changes to zoning laws have historically been a contentious issue both statewide and locally. During the last legislative session, statewide changes to zoning law failed to pass in the legislature.

Opponents have said that statewide zoning reform proposals would impose a one-size-fits all solution that wouldn’t work for every town and would dilute local control.

But Dubois-Walton remains optimistic about the report’s proposed solutions and the changes that they can bring. 

“Our statewide legislative agenda remains in effect,” she said. “We will continue working at the statewide level on all the things that need to happen in the surrounding counties, in the surrounding region, at the state level to break open the opportunity for housing development in those areas.

“But this report is specifically about New Haven right now to address it. New Haven can take on a much larger zoning reform. This is sort of like the low-hanging fruit. This is what can be taken on right away and that could make some significant changes, particularly if taken on as a package.”

“It’s exciting that advocates are encouraging the development of additional affordable housing,” said New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker. “We’re enthusiastically in favor of many of the things they suggested. We’re already doing a lot of the work that was outlined in the report and are energetic about doing even more.”

Cities such as Minneapolis, Portland, and New Rochelle in New York, have similar policies to those proposed in the report to increase construction of more housing. The result of this is a greater supply of housing leading to rent prices growing at a much slower pace than in New Haven County and nationally, according to the report.

Donato Davis is CT Mirror's 2023 Emma Bowen Summer Intern. He is a rising junior at the University of Connecticut. Before coming to CT Mirror he participated in a summer sports writing internship with BVM Sports, an online sports magazine based in Wisconsin where he interviewed and wrote articles about local athletes, teams, and coaches within Connecticut. He is also a news reporter at UCTV, UCONN's television news broadcast station.