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Housing issues affect everyone in Connecticut, from those who are searching for a safe place to live, to those who may find it increasingly difficult to afford a place they already call home.WNPR is covering Connecticut's housing and homelessness issues in a series that examines how residents are handling the challenges they face. We look at the trends that matter most right now, and tell stories that help bring the issues to light.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Affordable Housing

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Frank Franklin II
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AP Photo
This is the location of a future site for affordable housing in Stamford, Connecticut, on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020.

Affordable housing is the subject of a number of bills before Connecticut lawmakers. But what do we really mean when we talk about “affordable housing”? 

That conversation could start with a question much like the one from state Sen. Dan Champagne at a virtual Planning and Development public hearing last week.

“Do you know how many affordable housing units exist in Connecticut?” Champagne asked Sara Bronin.  Bronin is a lawyer, professor and lead organizer of Desegregate CT, a group of organizations started in the wake of racial justice protests last summer that is focused on addressing segregation through land use laws.  

“No one knows the answer to your question,” Bronin replied. 

Why? Bronin says it’s complicated. She urged Champagne to focus more on the affordable part, rather than the housing part.

“Maybe it’s not the number of units that are affordable,” Bronin said, “but the percentage of families that actually can afford the housing that they live in.”

This nuance is key to what Bronin and many housing advocates are trying to accomplish right now. 

Sam Giffin, a data and policy analyst with Open Communities Alliance, a civil rights organization focused on housing, believes he has an answer to Champagne’s question. There aren’t enough affordable housing units in Connecticut. 

It all starts with the definition of “affordable housing.” He measured it a few ways in a recent OCA report. Looking at the most severe need -- households that spend 50% of their income on housing and make 30% of the area median income -- Giffin found that 135,740 households in Connecticut need affordable housing.

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“When we talk about the 135,000 households in need of affordable housing in Connecticut, that is in addition to all the low-income households that are in subsidized affordable housing,” Giffin said. 

There are 174,208 households getting some kind of assistance, according to the Connecticut Department of Housing’s Affordable Housing Appeals List.

According to the graph above, a greater number of households have less severe need but still pay too much. Some 376,850 households make only 80% of the area median income and pay a third of that toward housing. The standard definition of affordable housing is spending less than 30% of a household’s total income on housing, according to Open Communities Alliance.  

Housing Bills This Session

A number of bills are working their way through the legislature that would expand housing affordability across the income spectrum.

Open Communities Alliance is supporting HB 6611, which would spread this need proportionately across the state. 

Desegregate CT helped develop SB 1024, a central focus of the Planning and Development hearing. It would increase the variety of housing options available in the state, like two- and three-family apartments. 

The pushback to a statewide approach is concern that it would take away control from local municipalities.

Westport Planning and Zoning Chair Danielle Dobin argued at the recent hearing that Connecticut has such an extreme variety of property values that she believes the solution can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. 

“It’s simply not credible to suggest that a statewide zoning reform will have the same impact in different communities,” Dobin said in her testimony.

She argues that in a place like Westport expanding some regulations will only make it easier for developers to create more expensive apartments and condos. 

The Case For Inclusion

Antonia Edwards, cofounder of SoliDarity, a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights of Black Americans, says she hears racism in some of the arguments for local control. 

Edwards said that during the recent hearing and at local zoning board meetings, she has heard comments like, “‘Why would people of color move to my neighborhood? We have no transit system.’” Edwards heard unfounded fears of property values going down and concerns about schools being flooded. 

“They were making up bogus claims to push back on why this was needed, and it’s just reminiscent of Jim Crow,” Edwards said.

SoliDarity works with people who say they often feel unwelcome in the suburbs. Some people don’t want to leave the city because of this, but living in cities comes with higher costs.

SoliDarity co-founder, James Keitt says his current search for an apartment demonstrates how Black residents are effectively barred from some communities. 

“[Landlords] want you to make three times the rent, but knowing there’s income disparity in Connecticut,” Keitt said, “it’s almost like it’s systematically implied that they don’t want us.” 

Keitt added that housing is a bigger expense for people of color in Connecticut, making it more difficult to save for a mortgage or just stay afloat. 

More than a quarter of Black and Latinx households in the state have to pay half of what they make toward housing, while 14% of white households pay that much, according to Data Haven.

Quinnipiac law professor Marjorie Shansky said that Connecticut doesn’t have a good diversity of housing. There’s a lack of more affordable options like two- and three-family homes, condos and in-law apartments. 

“It’s not really about lower income exclusively, and that’s the misnomer of affordable housing,” said Shansky.  

The issue impacts young families, empty nesters and single people across the income spectrum, because the bar is very high in Connecticut for home ownership with limited options for renting. 

“The fact that many of the towns in Connecticut have mostly only one housing type, which is the single-family house,” Shansky said, “forecloses the ability of people to live in those towns.” 

Many approaches are needed to end the economic and racial exclusion inherent in housing, according to Shansky. Zoning reform, she said, is a good place to start.

 

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