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Opinion: Another scheme for affordable housing

Former Mayor Bill Collins.

Finding a decent place to live is one of America’s most troubling and enduring problems. Lately the press has been laying it out in spades, city by city, state by state. Some towns have actually been putting their backs into creating solutions.

But rarely in Connecticut. Our Home Rule law pretty much allows towns to “maintain their character” by strictly controlling multifamily housing if they so desire. Most of the rich ones do so. This is one reason our cherished state is so “leafy.” People who cannot afford to own property with trees are invited to live somewhere else. Where? Don’t ask.

Some years ago in a fit of humanity the General Assembly tried to correct this problem. It passed a famous law, 8-30g (OK, famous if you live in a suburb under its litigation).  That law told towns if they did not see to it that 10 percent of their housing units were affordable (according to careful definitions), then a developer could legally apply to build a project which bypassed their sacred density requirements and sue the town if denied. Naturally the health, safety, traffic and environmental stuff would still apply.

This scheme might have been called the Nuclear Option. It was a very explosive law. Dockets have not exactly been crammed with such cases, but there have been a lot. Some commendable projects have actually been built under its duress. Other suits have failed. Still other successful applicants have whipped off their masks of good will and offered to sell their court-approved sites to the town itself for an outrageous profit.  Some such outflanked towns have chosen to pay the tribute and make the disputed property into a park or something else. In the end the number of new units completed under the law has been small.

Plainly the state needs a new model, maybe one based more on small arms fire rather than nukes. So let’s start small with the ECS, that state education grant which each town receives every year based on a truly algorithmic formula of need. Poor towns get a lot, rich towns, not so much. But every town gets something. Now let’s say that the state decides to condition this automatic annual grant on each town’s performance under the housing law that already says it must make sure that 10 percent of its units be affordable. Nothing complicated, you understand. Just that if only 1 percent of Filchburg is affordable, it only gets 10 percent of its grant. If 3.6 percent is affordable, then it gets 40 percent of its grant, and so on up to 10 percent affordable whereupon it gets the whole package.

Since the exclusionary towns don’t get that big a grant anyway, this loss would not be horrific if they decided forgo it. On the other hand it would put a very specific price tag, typically $400-500,000, on the luxury of excluding poorer people, and local citizens could make up their minds if they wanted to continue to pay. Money withheld would go into a state pot for affordable housing tax credits, always in demand. And if this penalty were not stern enough we could begin to look into withholding a portion of the state’s contribution to the local teacher retirement account.

Nor would good old 8-30g be extinguished. This new proposal would simply add an additional sanction for a town to be its brother’s keeper. Also as towns gradually did the right thing and built some units, they could mount a more credible court defense against assertive developers under 8-30g. And in the end, as in a Bollywood movie, the whole cast would dance down the street because enough (well, maybe not quite) units had been built to accommodate ill-housed Nutmeggers who are suffering so much today. So let’s all take a deep breath and DO something.

12 comments

Jason Milligan January 12, 2020 at 10:36 am

Bill Collins,

I like and respect you but man are you dead wrong on this issue. Your heart might be in the right place, but the answer to the problem is not more government involvement. It is less.

Before any intelligent conversation can be had about affordable apartments we need to understand some definitions.

What is an affordable unit?

Under 8-30g a unit is affordable ONLY if the property is deed restricted and the whole transaction is monitored and administered by the government forever and always. Landlords must submit annual written proof that they are complying, and tenants must continually prove that they are poor. Heaven forbid a tenant improves their income-then they lose their apartment.

The definition has been hijacked and tortured to ensure government control, and to cede a town’s sovereignty to the state government.

There are thousands of apartments in our state that are what they hilariously call “naturally occurring” affordable units. Those are units that meet the price thresholds but not the government control thresholds. These apartments don’t count as affordable. As if part of some sick joke, the “naturally occurring” apartments are actually counted as being NOT affordable. They go in the same batch as the highest price penthouse at Waypointe…
I personally own approximately 30 of these “naturally occurring” apartments in Norwalk. I don’t want the state government as a partner telling me what to do.

8-30g is well intentioned (maybe). But its consequences are disastrous. It attracts the wrong type of developers who make money the wrong way for the wrong reasons. Think POKO!

It is not the best way to get maximum number of affordable units.

The best way to get the maximum number of affordable units includes getting the government out of the way. The state government & local government.

If you want more of something, then you just need to make it easier to do. Stop requiring crazy amounts of applications and expensive, time consuming processes to give the affordable units. Stop requiring all apartments to provide expensive and little used bells & whistles like pools, gyms, reading rooms etc.

Lastly, find a better more accurate way to count affordable apartments.

If this commonsense approach to increasing the affordable housing stock were employed, then you would see the government connected developer cronies crying out for moratoriums on apartments to preserve their profits.
Higher rent means more money for landlords. The last thing they want to do is compete for tenants.

To get downward pressure on price then there needs to be upward pressure on supply. It is all about supply and demand. Make it easier to increase the supply of apartments and the price will come down on all apartments

The problem is the system that only allows well connected cronies that perpetuate the same talking points. They give lip service to wanting to help the poor when mostly what they want to do is stay in power or make a profit.

The system is unlikely to change when a well liked and respected people like Bill Collins continue to promote similar failed policies.

8-30g has only made money for connected savvy developers, lots of attorneys and it has helped politicians stay in power. It has not helped many poor people.

The last comment I will make is that any system should recognize the being poor is and should be temporary. All able bodies, able minded people should have an opportunity to climb the ladders of success.

Sadly, housing policies that demand you maintain your level of poorness to keep your apartment serve to keep people down, and static in their station.

Gordon Tully January 12, 2020 at 10:51 am

Great post, Bill. One of the problems with affordable housing by percentage is that unless the project is 100% affordable the denominator of the fraction affordable/all housing goes up. So let’s say the city has 10,000 units of rental housing of which 500 are affordable (500/10,000 = 5%) and adds 1,000 new units with 10% affordable. the fraction goes up to 600/11,000 (5.45%). The city would never meet its 10% target this way. The only solution I know of direct subsidy, which in these days of hyper-libertarianism is a hard/impossible sell. With a sufficient package of subsidies it is possible to build decent 100% affordable projects.

M Murray January 13, 2020 at 6:43 am

Or does subsidized housing artificially inflate the price of units in housing complexes that would never rent out for as much as they do on the open market? Some units in housing complexes rent for over 2,000 per month, with government subsidies paying almost all of the rent to private corporations. Similar situations occur with Section 8 tenants paying a smaller portion to private landlords with the government picking up the bulk of the rent. Without these subsidies, many of these apartments would never go for the amount of rent that the owners are getting Let the free market reign and prices will fall to their natural level. Let towns run themselves. As markets rise and fall, prices will follow. People will always be free to move where land is cheaper and the market is improving.

Maybe the state and federal government should not be in the education funding business at all. What are the administrative and regulative costs in collecting taxes at the federal and state level to then hand them back down to the localities where they came from? Wouldn’t it be cheaper for each school district/local government to tax their own constituents based on their desires and needs to support their educational costs? Less administration required at the federal level to collect, regulate, and disburse to the states. Less administration to request, and collect from the federal government to disburse to localities while collecting from state citizens to disburse at the same time? Do you think all this administration is free?

David Muccigrosso January 13, 2020 at 9:04 am

@Bill, while I appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into this, I am inclined along the lines of @Jason’s comments: the solution is less government, especially when it comes in the form of exclusionary zoning.

Your mechanism of altering ECS funding is certainly valid on its own terms. But (1) I fear that it’s too little to make much of a difference, and (2) you’re feeding the withheld funds into a broken tax credit.

Tax credits don’t make new developments “affordable”, they simply make them add modern-day versions of servants’ entrances. And they don’t make old developments “affordable”, they simply set up low-income families into a trap.

What we need is for building to be less restricted. We all pay a massive premium to keep property owners’ values rising year after year – both in the excessive housing prices and in the lost economic activity from a more thriving housing and real estate market and lost population growth.

Just look at POKO. Look, I’m a late-comer here, so I can never tell for sure who’s “in the right” on that one, but what I *do* know is that it could be solved tomorrow if we would just get nosy local government out of the way. They’re trying to solve a complex, dynamic problem all in one go, and since Jason doesn’t fit their bill for that, they’re keeping it from happening.

We *don’t* need to solve every single problem of growth in one go.

We don’t need to preallocate every single parking space according to some magic formula – we’ll never get it right the first time anyways.

What we SHOULD be doing is solving these problems as they arise. Sure, anticipate the ones you can, and deal with them, but don’t freak out about every single detail.

And we shouldn’t be begging and cajoling and TIF’ing and tax-crediting developers to build unaffordable penthouses for commuters.

Norwalk’s population has grown for some time now. People WANT to live here – otherwise we wouldn’t have the (good-to-have) problem of such a huge influx of students into NPS. But because many of those people were the “wrong” type of people, we haven’t built housing for them.

Their neighborhoods are instead endlessly targeted to be torn down, in order to build those unaffordable commuter penthouses.

The answers are simple.

– LET the developers build the buildings they WANT to build for the market that’s HERE.
– Let them build however TALL they want (within reason – no one needs an ugly monstrosity like New Rochelle here). It’s amazing how many people you can pack onto a small footprint and keep it affordable when you don’t have absurdly low height limits.
– Protect historic buildings and facades and districts, but don’t pretend that every single run-down shack is worth keeping.
– Join the growing number of states and cities who have enacted a simple regulation: in all areas that are currently zoned for single-family detached housing, allow duplexes. It doesn’t ruin old neighborhoods, it just lets capacity slowly increase over time.
– Most of all, don’t give away money that we don’t have to. LESS government means letting business thrive or starve without government picking winners and losers.

Susan Wallerstein January 13, 2020 at 9:04 am

Agree or disagree with the mechanics this is the kind of creative approach to public policy that I appreciate and admire. Disclosure: I’ve always had a problem accepting input from folks who live in Norwalk’s neighboring affluent suburbs about issues like affordable housing.

Bill Nightingale January 13, 2020 at 10:16 am

Jason Milligan:

for once, I wholeheartedly agree with you. The Affordable Housing Industrial Complex is a poster child of excess government waste and good intentions gone bad.

John Levin January 13, 2020 at 10:41 am

Bill Collins – your simple suggestion is brilliant, as it simply reallocates money already granted by the state to wealthy towns and provides them with a small incentive to stop preventing the development of affordable housing within their borders. Of course wealthy towns can continue to choose to prevent lower income people from residing inside their borders, and the children from those families attending their public schools, but now they simply would also be choosing to share a small portion of their wealth with towns that are willing to allow lower income people as residents.

And I strongly disagree with Jason Milligan: affordable housing is is EXACTLY the kind of important social issue and hidden economic externality where the government already IS involved, but should simply be involved in a smarter and more humane way. Mr. Milligan ignores the key issue that Mayor Collins raises: wealthy towns prevent multi-family development as a whole, or require that they be very expensive and not accessible by lower income families, effectively dumping the state’s poor people onto its already poorer communities. Yes: towns surrounding Norwalk (Westport, Weston, Wilton, New Canaan, and Darien), I’m talking about YOU.

Again, ask yourself why Norwalk sees its public school and ELL poplulations surge, while towns like Wilton see declines? Ask yourself why this: “Adamowski lays out reasoning behind proposed $14 million NPS budget increase” (NancyOnNorwalk.com Jan 8, 2020)
https://www.nancyonnorwalk.com/adamowski-lays-out-reasoning-behind-proposed-14-million-nps-budget-increase/

Jason Milligan January 13, 2020 at 1:28 pm

John Levin,

That is not how economics works. The “leafy towns” have not ceded control to Hartford. The market dictates the price of things unless the government is involved, including housing.

In this case the market commands high prices for convenient, leafy places to live that have low government involvement…

If I am not mistaken John you live in a pretty leafy part of town. What are you doing wrong? What do you say to the people that suggest you open your home and yard to more needy deserving folks. Put a few affordable units where they can fit…

Why not carve up the cities and towns too. There are areas of Norwalk that are very “exclusionary”. wealthy parts of towns/cities prevent multi-family development as a whole, or require that they be very expensive and not accessible by lower income families, effectively dumping the state’s poor people onto its already poorer communities. Yes: parts of Norwalk (Rowayton, Cranbury, East Norwalk, John Levin’s street), I’m talking about YOU.

David Muccigrosso January 13, 2020 at 3:04 pm

@John Levin,

Affordable housing policy is precisely what hides the externalities of “leafy towns” excluding the poor from their borders.

It pretends that forcing developers to set aside a handful of units for lower prices will solve the overall problem that everything is high priced.

“Leafy towns” aren’t just five or ten cheap units short of being affordable. They’re a whole market short of being affordable.

And the solution that we’ve been given? Expensive penthouses in downtown and South Norwalk with handfuls of “affordable units”. Meanwhile the veritable ghettos just south and east are being stuffed like slums with unleased tenants.

The only actual capacity that’s been built in Norwalk in the past two decades was priced FAR above the previous “market rate”.

And the number of units built most certainly did NOT satisfy the population growth – what any sane person who’s not beholden to the myths of ever-rising housing prices would just call “demand”.

Because otherwise, we wouldn’t be growing a slum in our own backyard, but rather, all of those newcomers would be sitting in pristine, actually affordable apartment buildings.

Chris K January 14, 2020 at 4:55 pm

I have a crazy and naive idea— and it would only ever make a small dent— but what if towns created a fund to help a small number of families every year purchase of a house in that town, perhaps with the help of some kind government assistance. If each family in a leafy town chipped in $100 a year, that would go a long way towards helping a family buy a home in that town at market rate. It wouldn’t hurt real estate prices or require the kind of construction that people in those towns reject.

The Norwalker January 17, 2020 at 4:30 pm

The answer is simple just increase the percentage of low Income Renters each Apartment Building must have until Norwalk’s low income housing needs are met. Before Norwalk lost all its factories the City had way more Apartment Buildings from Main St all the way down to South Main St in SONO.

Norwalk has 90k+ population fitting into 22.8 sq mi of land and a lot of the land is too steep to build on or is used by I-95, the Super 7,the Merritt Parkway and MLK Blv which is hardly even used.

Non Partisan January 18, 2020 at 12:18 pm

Less government- more self determination and self responsibility.

Norwalk has exceeded the state requirement- but continues to push for more affordable housing.

Affordable housing is a lie- it’s one of the biggest reasons our tax rate is high, and our property values are low ( and falling) affordable housing is paid for with real estate tax subsidies.

If you can’t afford the rent- commute. That’s what I did for decades.
Or get the skills to get a better paying job. I did that too.
Or move to a location where your skill set matches the market rent.

But please – don’t ask me to subsidize your life choices.

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