Governments across national, state and local levels have called into focus health and to a lesser degree economic issues associated with COVID-19. Policies have varied, impacting budgets, education, different socio-economic groups and the economy. Amidst the pandemic, city officials have also faced protests over instances of racism and symbols of inequality from government institutions. We’ve seen it in Norwalk. With events like these dominating headlines, we can’t lose sight of the one constant in Norwalk – this Administration’s pursuit of density at the expense of everything else. Injustice manifests itself in many forms. It’s time to reflect on what’s happening in the place we call home.
Strengths: Historically, Norwalk has been a diverse, affordable, working and middle class city in an otherwise expensive ‘Gold Coast’ area. Locals could buy or rent, give their children a good education, work in town or greater metro area and retire with children and grandchildren close by. Norwalk’s diverse school system has a long history of closing the achievement gap, ranking #1 in Connecticut’s urban districts today. An aesthetically and environmentally pleasing coastal city, Norwalk is strategically located on Long Island Sound, with six miles of coastline and over a thousand acres of parkland. Four train stations within an hour of NYC means residents have unlimited access to the largest cultural, media, sports, fashion, and entertainment city in the world.
Weaknesses: Lack of transparency and ‘communication after the fact’ has left neighborhoods scrambling when Zoning decisions have already been made. Ordinance enforcement has been lackadaisical and not kept pace with density. Local government has grown, with public employees earning more than the median income of most residents. Limited advocacy by elected officials has allowed Hartford to take financial advantage of Norwalk, especially in education funding, disproportionately impacting minority students. Education is a financial equalizer, yet officials seem content with Norwalk’s future steeped in mixed retail and minimum wage jobs serving mega apartment complexes.
Threats: This administration has combined and perfected the art of short-term planning with expedient cronyism. Overly involved in real estate, with a bias for spot zoning and developer tax incentives, many, but especially seniors and people of color are being forced out. Fortress complexes abound; the latest planned for the East Avenue section of town with 1300 proposed apartments and same added to BLT’s mini-city on Glover Avenue. Meanwhile, access to city hall during COVID-19 remains limited to YouTube, Zoom or paying one’s property taxes. Moving at warp speed, over 6000 apartments have been approved or planned along bottleneck, congested routes. New multi-unit housing, ranging from affordable to luxury has been corporatized, tax credited and concentrated in the hands of the favored few. Rents are more than most local mortgages, likely because Norwalk continues to spend. Despite concerns over private sector unemployment and tax collection later this year, Norwalk increased spending 4.9 percent. Last week, Norwalk’s Chief Financial Officer warned the Mayor and Council about rising capital debt and concerns over longer term financial sustainability. They approved bonding anyway.
Opportunities: There is still a strong sense of community held by residents of all races, many of whom have lived in Norwalk for generations and wish to remain so. If elected officials don’t understand public finance or Norwalk’s value – many people in this city do. The climate for pushback on local government by citizens is growing, creating opportunities to 1) halt the cronyism, 2) encourage smarter growth, 3) improve quality of life, and 4) create a sustainable financial future for Norwalk.
The institutionalized and financial hypocrisy of city hall on housing, education and quality of life must be addressed. Follow the money and follow the data. According to the Connecticut Economic Resource Center (CERC), Norwalk is more densely populated than Stamford and Danbury, with higher percentage crime rates and disengaged youth. With the lowest tree canopy in Western Connecticut, we’re turning our urban core into an expensive, soulless, concrete jungle. Stop enriching banks and developers with tax credits at the expense of residents and students. Believe in Norwalk. Quit selling us out on the cheap. Friends and neighbors of all colors, creeds and sexual orientations, open your eyes and make your voices heard!