4:09 p.m. EDT, July 24, 2013
When it comes to affordable or mixed-income housing, there is no such thing as low-hanging fruit.
It isn't easy to build affordable homes in the 32 Connecticut municipalities that have a fair amount of such housing; it's much harder in the other 137 communities that don't.
However, a quiet, steady housing revolution is taking shape across Connecticut.
When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced last week that 10 more municipalities were receiving HOMEConnecticut grants to study where they could create higher-density, more affordable, energy-efficient, walkable housing that will be close to transit, it might have seemed, to some, like a mistake.
Because the municipalities involved — Ridgefield, Brookfield, Stonington, North Stonington, Fairfield, Milford,Haddam, Durham, Burlington and Canton — were created for suburban, single-family, leafy, luxurious lifestyles. Now, they're getting grants to help determine how to broaden that array of housing options because, frankly, they need them.
Their 60-plus baby boomers need to get out of their big houses but want to stay in their communities. Their key workers — police, firefighters, teachers, nurses, public works employees — can't find places to live affordably. Their adult children can't come back to their hometowns.
What's more, there are many towns not far behind. I'm aware that at least a dozen similar upscale towns — from Greenwich to Guilford and Bethel to Ledyard —- are likely to apply for the next round of HOMEConnecticut grants.
The reason is fascinating. While most of those towns were founded in Colonial times, census figures show they didn't grow much until post-1970 suburban sprawl. They built thousands of single-family homes for baby boomers then in their 20s. Now that they're in their 60s, the charter members of the Pepsi generation don't want to rake leaves or shovel snow. What they do want is to stay in their town, near their friends, families, churches, doctors and other anchors. But their towns have nothing for them.
At the same time, Gen Yers or millennials — young workers in their 20s and 30s — have high education debt ($24,300 on average, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York) and neither the credit ratings nor down payments nor career prospects to qualify for a mortgage or buy a home.
Top that with $4 per gallon gasoline, expensive heating costs and increasing attraction to urban, walkable lifestyles and you have demand for smaller, denser, energy-efficient homes within walking distance of shops, restaurants and services in the town center — which are worth even more if they can be near bus or train service.
There is enormous demand. In 133 of Connecticut's 169 cities and towns, 70 to 93 percent of the housing stock is single-family. Connecticut has the seventh highest state rental costs in the nation because of short supply; it ranks 50th in construction of any type of housing over the last decade. For people making 80 percent of the median household income (about $56,000) or less, there is an 83,000-unit statewide shortage of affordable rentals. Now, demography — all those baby boomers and millennials — will add to the demand, and therefore the price, unless we add new supply.
Towns such as West Hartford are hearing from many would-be multifamily developers and commercial property owners who would like their properties rezoned to residential.
The towns receiving HOMEConnecticut grants — or adopting inclusionary zoning ordinances or otherwise rezoning to create more multifamily homes — are giving the market what it wants. They will benefit from their proactivity: Residents and municipal leaders, not developers, will decide where, how much and what type of housing they want. They will control the design and shape it appropriately to its surroundings. There will be few angry public hearings.
How will the state and its residents benefit? We will open Connecticut's high-resource schools and service-rich communities to young families, recent graduates, police and firefighters, teachers, nurses and so many more. We will improve educational outcomes and provide skilled labor for businesses we hope to lure. We will allow Connecticut to attract population, not lose it.
And we will be providing the housing we need for the people we need where we need it.