Affordable housing requires state support beyond zoning reform
Three recent opinion pieces, “Let’s tax Connecticut’s segregation” by New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, “Connecticut property taxes define structural racism” by Anne Dichele of Quinnipiac University, and “Ending segregation will stimulate Connecticut’s economy” by Dan Arsenault of Desegregate Connecticut, call for zoning reform for a more equitable society. It is a welcome effort in mitigating the housing crisis, but the matter is complex from historical development predating zoning and cannot be solved by taxing other towns for their failure of meeting impossible state mandates due to geographical limitations.
It would be cruel and unjust to penalize proportionally lower-income and fixed-income families within those affected communities and to suggest that they bear direct responsibility for failures that have been decades in the making, which, as a state, we all bear responsibility for.
Reform groups such as Desegregate Connecticut provide an idealistic plan to introduce form-based zoning as a cure-all for affordable housing and ethnic diversity, yet none of their Special Agenda initiatives address high costs of construction (particularly from labor shortages and international trade wars), and the high costs –and scarcity– of desirable land in Fairfield County.
The last remaining parcels of developable land in many towns and cities that are large enough to accommodate a multistory apartment building or cluster housing are often either wetlands, former or current farmland (or other “open space”) and brownfields and Superfund sites such as those in Norwalk.
Short of using highly unpopular (authoritarian) land use tools such as eminent domain to forcefully seize properties for affordable development leaves us mostly with either consolidating existing properties into larger parcels, subdividing them into smaller units, or revising setback requirements to maximize building footprints, all at the market rate. However, many of the earliest zoning laws were enacted to promote sunlight, air circulation and fire breaks between dwellings and any zoning reform that increases density have may unintended consequences, particularly with densities that may make self-isolation during public health crisis’ a particular hardship.
But even inclusionary zoning will not solve the housing crisis as developmental incentives fall short to encourage 100% affordable housing that is desperately needed in highly populated areas and not the mere 10-20% recently proposed for some “affordable” housing projects in towns and cities throughout Fairfield County. In that case, to have truly affordable housing in Connecticut, the state needs to heavily subsidize the construction cost. Historically, that has been the only way to ensure fair housing for all in other parts of the country, as private development is simply not enough to make ends meet.
Additionally, state investment in multi-modal transportation has yet to be significantly addressed to make transit-oriented development of “middle housing” an achievable reality, even in small towns. Gross negligence in maintaining existing road and rail infrastructures has resulted in astronomical price tags of such total replacement projects as the $1.2 billion ‘Walk Bridge in Norwalk. If that is the cost to replace one bridge in Connecticut, we can expect our state to go bankrupt yet again to not only replace all end-of-life bridges and roads within the state, but also find ourselves lacking the funds to address high traffic congestion in the most populated region of Connecticut that others in New Haven and Hartford are so quick to dismiss and instead label everything and everyone with racial bias as seems to be politically expedient at the moment.
Rezoning only makes sense if the people can get from one place to another within a tolerable time frame. Yet, Governor Lamont has been distracted with implementing his draconian COVID-19 policies that do more to hold hostage our economic progress than to see him trying to improve livelihoods from his 30-30-30 plan.
Instead, I suggest reform groups to consider more popular and simpler reforms first, such as streamlined permitting, to be implemented by individual towns following state requirements and recommendations. Unless you would like to take on Home Rule with a Constitutional referendum, you would achieve more by doing less as too much radical change in a year of radical change may backfire and then all momentum would be lost.
Of course, all of this may be proven to be irrelevant in a post-COVID world where remote working has proven to be highly successful. I am curious how zoning reform will address new kinds of “segregation” based on who has access to high-speed internet and who does not, and who wants to easily socially isolate themselves from new public health threats by choosing to live in lower density communities; and how such reform can lead to affordable housing in a brave new era.
While zoning reform with form-based codes will do much to alleviate racism, perceived or real, in planning decisions, it will not immediately lead to affordable housing without addressing other critical state deficiencies, and thus a more holistic state-supported solution is needed.
Jeremi Bigosinski is a member of the adjunct faculty in Architectural Engineering Technology at Norwalk Community College.
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