Zoning reform will save suburban businesses
In Connecticut’s small towns, there are some institutions that are essential fixtures in the community. Restaurants where people eat on special occasions or popular spots for first dates are host to some of our most treasured memories.
My hometown of Simsbury is lucky enough to claim Plan B Burger Bar as one of those institutions. It’s the first spot that my family and I shared a meal in town, and we’d go there every year as a way to mark the anniversary of our move.
Unfortunately we weren’t able to do that this year, because Plan B was forced to close for indoor dining. By way of explanation, the founder stated “Simsbury being where it is, out in the country, it doesn’t have a huge labor pool. People have to drive to get there.” People most likely to fill service jobs don’t live in Simsbury, because they can’t afford to live here. (According to the Partnership for Strong Communities, someone has to make $24/hour to afford a modest place in town.) Out-of-town residents without cars can’t take a job in our town even if they want to.
Simsbury isn’t alone in being an out-of-reach community for so many service workers, teachers, firefighters, and other people who are vital to the functioning of our town. All across Connecticut, towns do not have the necessary housing to support a diverse population of workers, young families, and older adults.
As a young person who grew up in Simsbury, every year I see more and more of the people that I grew up with start their careers outside of our hometown and state. For many, it’s not that they don’t want to come back, but rather because they cannot afford to.
A key culprit in our housing and labor shortage are overly restrictive zoning laws. My town follows the Connecticut trend of one-size-fits-all zoning that requires us to build single-family homes on large lots. Just 4% of my hometown’s housing stock is considered affordable, and 40% of renters are cost-burdened— statistics that are fairly representative of suburbs with similar income brackets. Our collective lack of affordable, multifamily, and small-scale housing is a major factor in Connecticut’s abysmally slow population growth rate of 1% over the past decade. That rate made us the fourth slowest-growing state in the nation.
The ramifications of slow growth over the next decade are truly frightening. Tax bases will shrink and businesses will struggle because there aren’t enough consumers to support them. I do not want to see my town’s small businesses become vacant storefronts, and the vast majority of my fellow suburbanites agree. But with our zoning laws, we have stunted not just the development of more affordable housing but the potential of many businesses. We have an obligation to pursue reforms to help young people, businesses, and all those with a stake in Connecticut’s future.
In the last legislative session, legislators made significant headway with the first statewide zoning reforms in a generation. While HB 6107 achieved a great deal, from fully legalizing accessory dwelling units to putting caps on costly parking mandates, more must be done for the suburbs. During the next legislative session, leaders from both parties must come together around solutions that will save our suburbs by ensuring they welcome a more diverse array of people.
The advocacy group Desegregate Connecticut, which I have worked with over the last year, had floated a proposal that did not make it into the 2021 zoning reforms but should be considered during the next legislative session. It would have encouraged towns to build small-scale housing near their commercial main streets. This provision would encourage smart and sustainable development in town centers, close to workplaces. It’s the right thing to do not just from an economic perspective, but from an environmental one too, because it creates walkable communities not so dependent on cars.
Even without statewide reforms, Simsbury should rezone its commercial core to allow for as-of-right multifamily housing, including triplexes and four-family housing. This kind of housing would be compatible with our town and would provide options for people who might work in our businesses. Businesses struggling to meet staffing requirements would benefit from prospective workers living just a quick walk away from their stores. This kind of housing also appeals to people who love Simsbury but don’t want the burden of a single-family home, if they even have the resources to own one.
While Plan B continued to offer take-out, other small businesses in towns like my own have not been as lucky. “Help Wanted” signs have sprung up all over the state, with businesses cutting back hours or services — or closing altogether. Helping the state’s suburban businesses should be a place where leaders can find common ground. Until we have more sensible housing policies — starting with zoning — we’re going to continue to lose places that are the lifeblood of our communities.
Kevin Kurian of Simsbury is a Policy Fellow for Desegregate CT
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