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What to Do About New England’s Affordable Housing Crisis

The Apple Valley Village mobile home park in Southington, Connecticut. About 6 percent of Southington’s housing stock is affordable. Under a new Connecticut law, resident-owned mobile homes can now count towards a municipality’s affordable housing percentage. Photo by Ryan Caron King for NENC

OPINION

In a session that ended earlier this month, Connecticut legislators voted to relax a controversial state law geared toward creating more affordable housing in the state.

No one is arguing that Connecticut and New England need more affordable housing. The region – from Portland, Maine, to Stamford, Connecticut – is struggling with offering an array of housing choices that won’t break the bank. According to the Partnership for Strong Communities — a Hartford, Connecticut-based non-profit that works to create more affordable housing in the state — nearly half of the state’s renters and almost a third of homeowners pay more than 30 percent of their household income for housing.

Paying more than 30 percent of a family’s income puts that family at risk of not being able to afford other necessities, such as food or medical care, but it gets worse. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 12 million of American renters pay more than half of their income for housing. The White House has said that affordable housing will be a part of its infrastructure plans, but no one’s holding their breath on that.

Regionally, the New England Housing Network says the region needs some 350,000 affordable units.

Connecticut’s amended law, known as 8-30g, generally allowed developers to bypass zoning regulations in towns with less than 10 percent of affordable housing stock — if those developers included affordable units in their plans. The new law makes it easier for towns to apply for moratoriums, in part by including more kinds of housing — say, mobile homes — in the mix.

Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy is not a fan of the changes. Members of his administration, including those in the relatively new Department of Housing, have taken the position that any change would be detrimental to the state’s push for more affordable housing.

Supporters say the law has created some 5,000 badly-needed affordable units, and that it made towns take affordable housing seriously. Detractors say the law was too often used by developers who wanted to force a housing development onto an unwilling town.

In general, 8-30g worked — at least in theory. The law made it more difficult for Connecticut towns to say no to affordable housing when that “no” was based on a fear of what kind of person might live in affordable housing. Housing advocates say it has historically been difficult to convince residents that affordable units benefit towns, as well as the teachers, firefighters, and police officers who want to be able to afford to live in the towns in which they work.

Connecticut’s law, which has been on the books since 1990, was modeled after a similar, nearly 50-year-old legislation in Massachusetts, known as Chapter 40B. That state, too, has had its share of discussions about how best to introduce affordable housing, where the rural towns of its 351 municipalities struggle to provide enough affordable housing.

In New Hampshire, affordability remains an issue. A report last year from Manchester-based New Hampshire Housing said just 14 percent of the state’s housing units could be considered affordable. In Maine, the average renter earns $10.39 an hour. That income is far less than required for the state’s average two-bedroom apartment. To afford that, a renter would need to earn $16.71, according to a legislative working group.

Every year, the National Low Incoming Housing Coalition releases a report on housing affordability called, tellingly, “Out of Reach.” This year’s report, released earlier this month, said that nowhere in the country could a person earning the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) afford a two-bedroom apartment, and only in 12 counties in the country (none of them in New England) could a worker earn the federal or state minimum wage and afford a one-bedroom apartment. The report said workers in Vermont, where the state minimum wage is $10, would need to work 69 hours a week to afford a modest, one-bedroom apartment in their state. That is not sustainable.

In fact, every New England state but Rhode Island appears in the list of 10 states with the highest discrepancy between the average workers’ wage, and the state’s housing wage, or the amount of money necessary to afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at fair market rate.

The need remains great. For the last few years, Massachusetts has led the way. There, the affordable housing law, unlike Connecticut’s, includes a provision for units with three or more bedrooms. Nationwide, according to data compiled by Governing magazine in 2015, cities and towns lack larger, affordable apartments for families. The trend among developers is smaller units, often geared toward the growing older generation.

In February, Benjamin G. Blake, mayor of Milford, Connecticut, told that state’s legislative Housing Committee that the old 8-30g worked against older towns with older housing stock. That may well be. It seems that everyone had a story about unscrupulous developers taking advantage of the law. On her website, Rep. Kim Rose, D-Milford, vice chairwoman of the Housing Committee, called some developers “predatory.”

Connecticut maintains a housing appeals list — or a list of towns that have met their affordable housing goals, and a list of towns that haven’t. Scroll down the list and see if you find a pattern. From 2016, the towns that have more than 10 percent affordable housing among its housing stock include Hartford (38 percent), New Britain (30 percent), and Windham (29 percent). Keep scrolling and you’ll come to towns like Bethany (less than half of a percent), and Redding (even less than that).

To increase affordable homes, market watchers suggest adding more housing stock (to keep up with population growth), and more varied housing stock (to keep up with market needs). That means more density, and paying attention to walkability. That means looking at regulations and seeing where there are roadblocks to affordability. And that means, in the anticipated withdrawal of support from federal programs, a local investment in housing.

As Vermont Gov. Phil Scott (a Republican) said recently at an affordable housing development ribbon-cutting in Milton, “Supporting our downtowns and historic villages are some of the best investments we can make to grow the economy.”