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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 percent affordable housing that is desperately needed in highly populated areas and not the mere 10-20 percent 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.

* Editor’s note: The $1.2 billion often cited as the projected cost of the Walk Bridge reconstruction is actually the cost of the entire project, which includes renovating other Norwalk railroad bridges. The actual Walk Bridge reconstruction is projected to cost $511 million.

Jeremi Bigosinski  is a member of the adjunct faculty in Architectural Engineering Technology at Norwalk Community College. This editorial comes to you courtesy of the Connecticut Mirror.

8 comments

John ONeill August 29, 2020 at 9:28 am

Very interesting piece. I’d buy what he’s selling if he actually lived in a diverse town. I think most of us would agree Wilton is not a good example of low income zoning or people. Walk the Walk and maybe someone will follow.

bonnie dudley August 29, 2020 at 9:41 am

the more you tax and force these *zoning* things on people the more the people leave. That leaves a gaping hole in the help the State can afford to provide. How about we lower taxes to draw thriving businesses here instead of driving them out? Is that too racist for CT?

Norwalk Native August 29, 2020 at 1:25 pm

Jeremi,

The Liberal racists in Darien, Westport, Greenwich, New Canaan, Wilton and Weston are not interested in doing ANYTHING that will encourage affordable housing. They just want to virtue signal and vote for Joe Biden. The existing Jim Crow zoning laws already in place in this state ensure that all the disadvantages are concentrated in the Cities. Even the Governor has backed off on this topic, since he realizes that much of his support and money come from these same people. Better to march and protest and hold signs and keep the actual burdens in the urban areas.

Jason Milligan August 31, 2020 at 7:41 am

The term “housing crises” was used often in this article. Can you please define the term. I do not believe we have a crisis on our hands.

Also please define “affordable housing”.

In CT “affordable housing” equals corrupt government controlled housing. This housing costs 3 times the typical construction rates and through complicated formulas using median income are often not that affordable.

There can never be enough “affordable housing” with Connecticut’s complicated and corrupt system.

CT’s definition of affordable housing only counts housing that is deed restricted and controlled by the government.

Rent price alone is irrelevant in CT’s dishonest and misleading System. There are thousands of apartments that would qualify as affordable based solely on price that are not counted as “affordable housing”. Sadly these low cost apartments actually count as NOT affordable.

CT has a system that does more to keep certain people in power and enrich their cronies than it does to assist the people in need.

Giving needy people subsidy that travels with them so they can rent the living arrangements of their choice like section 8 vouchers would help address the supply side corruption but does come with many unintended consequences, like discouraging ever earning more income or getting married, either of which could jeopardize the subsidy.

There are many things society could do to encourage greater supply of housing units. Loosening zoning and other regulations would be a big help, but can impact the look and feel of our communities.

I personally do not accept we have a housing crises. I will accept that people with low to no income have fewer choices and a harder time finding housing. That is a constant.

In a perfect society people are able to increase their income and station in life. We should spend a lot more time identifying, celebrating and imitating those that start with low or no income and move their way up.

Government should provide leadership only. Determine what the people want and need. Set the course and allow creative people to deliver results. Unfortunately this is not what is happening with “affordable housing” in Connecticut.

David Muccigrosso August 31, 2020 at 8:16 am

Jeremi,

First of all, thank you from the bottom of my heart for being willing to be part of the solution and not the problem. Far too many people scream “BUT MUH SUBURBS!”, and unfortunately too many on the other side – like the Democrats you’re rather even-handedly criticizing – are dyed-in-the-wool liberals who don’t actually care about housing reform but just want to lazily demagogue votes, and not progressives who want to actually see the problem solved intelligently.

I think it’s helpful to start by acknowledging that the current way we look at our housing market is insane. It’s understandable why we’ve spent 100 years of housing policy treating houses as the primary sources of family wealth, but the unpleasant truth is that they’re *naturally depreciating assets*, which incentivizes protectionist zoning that becomes exclusionary by restricting supply.

That said, we also can’t ruin people’s financial futures. We need to deleverage from the expectations of growth that people have bought into, and provide alternative sources of wealth creation.

And we have to acknowledge that the solution might not be to strictly adhere to *carveouts* as the core of an affordable housing policy. In the absence of exclusionary/protectionist zoning, old stock naturally depreciates in value and becomes affordable. But this is dependent on a healthy market of newer construction: if not enough is being built, it will be built for higher price points, protecting the existing market from its natural depreciation. IE, if the new construction down the street is $700 more expensive, the building built 10 years ago has no reason to lower its prices, and neither does the building built 20 years ago either.

What this means is that we need *more* construction. Thankfully, contractors are smart. Urban planners are smart. The reason we get suboptimal results from them is because we constrain them. We need fewer constraints. They can estimate what the true market is – not the depressed, exclusionarily constrained market – from there.

Reforming our housing policies is not going to happen all in one day, and we should treat it as such. There will be missteps and backfires. Accordingly, I think the best strategy to start with is the simplest: a statewide policy that (1) converts all single-family-detached zones to multi-family-detached zones (IE, allow duplexes everywhere), (2) raises all current height limits by 1 full story, and (3) waives parking minimums within 1 mile of passenger rail stations.

What defenders of “neighborhood character” and “suburbs” do get right is that there will always be demand for suburbs, and wholesale changing the built architecture of existing communities overnight can ruin them. These limited reforms prevent that from happening. Rezoning current residences won’t immediately change them; rather, some homeowners and builders will over time make them slightly more dense. Raising height maximums won’t plant enormous, unsightly towers in every historic hamlet; it’ll simply give them room to accommodate new growth. And waiving parking minimums will acknowledge that the existing formulas can be too restrictive.

Cheers! I hope this conversation can continue to be productive. It’s really tiring to hear the same old tired NIMBYism over and over again, and I’m glad that some people are finally changing their minds.

john flynn August 31, 2020 at 8:54 am

There is a meeting at Cedar Court wednesday 9/2/20 with Himes Duff, Rilling and Blumenthal, so i am told. It is not open to the public. We want the FOI we asked for 5 times. Ther are many problems and the city is no longer allowed to get involved due to another bad settlement agreement. Creating more and more victims of bed bugs by the gallon. Get your name on the list. This is Norwlak’s biggest current problem.

John Miller August 31, 2020 at 4:11 pm

“We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labor, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity, and independence.” The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. While I don’t totally disagree with the need for affordable housing, Messers Bigosinski and Muccigrosso clearly need a refresher course in the 5th and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution.

David Muccigrosso September 1, 2020 at 7:40 am

@john miller

That is an incredibly bad-faith argument. I defy you, where precisely did either of us advocate for abolishing private property? Sounds like you need a refresher in “reading comprehension” yourself.

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