Editorial: Affordable Housing Still Needed
The lack of affordable housing has been and continues to be a problem for everyone in Connecticut. As a first step toward a remedy, in 1988 the General Assembly enacted Connecticut General Statutes §8-30g to promote opportunities for the construction of more affordable housing in the state.
The statute was designed to make it easier for a developer to obtain a zoning change in order to build a housing development with affordable units. Under the statue, if a developer's proposal provides that at least 30 percent of the dwelling units to be built must be sold or rented at or below prices that will cost purchasers or renters, as the case may be, 30 percent or less of their annual income, then the statute shifts the burden of proof for obtaining a change in zoning from the applicant to the local government.
Under Section 8-30(B)(2)(g), if a town denies an application for such a project, on the applicant's appeal to the Superior Court the town must establish that based on the evidence in the record of the hearing on the application, the denial was necessary to protect substantial public interests in health, safety or other matters; that such public interests clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing; and that such public interests cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development. The statutory goal is to provide a free-market solution to the lack of affordable housing.
Unfortunately, many Connecticut communities have put more effort into resisting affordable housing than into accommodating it. A common technique is large lot zoning, which increases housing prices and limits opportunities for multi-family housing. Ninety-six percent of Connecticut towns have zoning codes with no provision for affordable housing. Twenty-five towns don't even allow multi-family housing.
A Lexis search reveals over 150 reported cases in which developers appealed the denial of an affordable housing proposal. To paraphrase the New Jersey Supreme Court in its second decision on exclusionary zoning (Southern Burlington County NAACP v. Township of Mount Laurel, often referred to as Mount Laurel II), Section 8-30g was designed to encourage affordable housing, not to produce litigation. Unfortunately, it seems to have produced more of the latter than the former.
Why is there such virtually unwavering opposition? Opponents often cite concern that affordable housing will decrease the value of nearby property, increase crime, and bring more children into the community, thereby increasing school costs and taxes. However, in a recent publication, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (CFHC) says that studies show those concerns to be unfounded. According to CFHC, affordable housing has no negative effect on the value of nearby property. Nor is there any evidence that it brings crime to a neighborhood if the owner of a project engages in sound management practices such as careful tenant screening, prudent security precautions, and regular maintenance. And residents of rental units have fewer children on average than do residents of owner-occupied, single-family housing.
Lack of affordable housing has a particularly pernicious effect on segregation. In Connecticut, two-thirds of the minority population lives in 15 of the state's 169 towns. Eighty percent of African Americans and Hispanics live in cities with problematic schools and unsafe neighborhoods. According to CFHC, when children move out of areas with concentrations of poverty, the education achievement gap between them and children of higher income families is reduced. Similarly, their stress levels drop and brain development improves.
What can be done? To paraphrase the New Jersey Supreme Court again, neither legislatures nor courts build housing—developers do. How can they be encouraged beyond the provisions of Section 8-30g? The legislature could add to the statute provisions requiring local governments to employ inclusionary zoning techniques. For instance, instead of leaving the decision as to whether to include affordable units up to developers, towns can require that all developments have a certain percentage of low- and moderate-income units. In return, the town can provide non-monetary compensation to developers in the form of density bonuses (more units than otherwise allowed), so that their income stream in not diminished.
The only impediment to fostering communities with greater racial and economic diversity is the laws that allow exclusion. And the way to encourage changing them is with facts and studies like those the Connecticut Fair Housing Center produces, demonstrating that more affordable housing can benefit all the residents of our state.•