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Connecticut spent less than 1% of ARPA funding on affordable housing

Aleksejs Bergmanis

The American Rescue Plan Act gave billions of dollars to states for infrastructure updates during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Connecticut, towns spent that money on recreation areas, sewer updates and even performance stages; but only 1% was used for affordable housing.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Andrew Brown to discuss his article, “CT towns got $1.5 billion from feds. They’ve budgeted roughly 1% for housing,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Andy you write that a national coalition estimates Connecticut is currently short 85,400 affordable housing units. Yet towns have used little of the American Rescue Plan Act money they've received on such housing, despite pleas from the Biden administration. So, what's affordable housing and why are towns reluctant to have more of them?

AB: Affordable housing can be restricted in some ways. But what it means is that people who are in lower income brackets can afford housing without spending more than 30% of their annual income on rent, utilities or a mortgage payment. Connecticut is obviously, I think most people are aware if you're following the news at all, is a very expensive place to live if you're trying to buy a home and even rent at this point.

There's been studies as well as just market data that shows that rent throughout Connecticut are skyrocketing as they are in much of the country at the moment. And so housing advocacy groups are very interested in trying to build more housing that has covenants in place that would require the owners of that housing to rent at rates that are affordable to people in lower income brackets.

WSHU: The study found that you need about $57,000 annually to avoid spending more than a third of your income on housing in Connecticut. That's a two-bedroom apartment.

AB: Yes.

WSHU: It's pretty steep. So what have the town's decided to do with this money? And why has it been difficult for them to appropriate enough of the money that they received from the federal government for housing?

AB: Many of the towns put it into what they would consider to be more traditional infrastructure. At the local level, millions of dollars were put towards water and sewer infrastructure. Millions more were put into storm water upgrades so that if there's a torrential downpour, the storm water drains on the street that you see can handle that flow of water. Others spent money on parks and recreation, you know, building new sidewalks or pickleball courts. In three towns, they bought these rather expensive mobile stages that they hold town festivals and other events. It runs the gamut of what towns spent the money on.

What we heard from towns and cities, as well as housing advocates as to why so little money or such a small percentage of money had been put towards housing, is that towns in Connecticut still largely don't view housing and the infrastructure around housing as their responsibility. It's something I think that many towns believe the private market and private developers have to figure out. And so very little of this money was put towards, for instance, acquiring land for new affordable housing developments or helping to finance the early soft costs, planning and zoning and other costs related to affordable housing.

This would have encouraged private developers and kind of locked them into adding more affordable housing to their their projects. What we heard most of all is that the public perception around affordable housing and the politics around it are still not conducive in Connecticut to public officials putting substantial amounts of money, even if it is federal grant money, into those projects.

WSHU: What about the cities? I mean, historically we've had a situation where the most affordable housing in the state has been located in the cities. What have cities done with their money? Did they put in any more money than the suburban and rural communities?

AB: Much of the $15 million or so that we tracked of this ARPA spending that went to housing related expenses, was in places like Bridgeport, New London, Norwalk, and New Britain. And I mean, part of the reason for that is that those cities received a much larger allocation based on population than the smaller towns. So a million dollars of Bridgeport's ARPA funding goes a lot further than a couple hundred thousand or a couple million dollars that the smaller towns received. But they put money into assistance for the unhoused population, they put millions towards future affordable housing developments.

I think one of the interesting expenses was in New Britain, in several categories. They spent several million dollars acquiring land, either blighted houses or blighted structures in the city, that will be turned into affordable housing in the future. They've also used some of the money to demolish an old school so that that land can be reused in the future for affordable housing, that would be single family homes. Those are the types of things that the American Rescue Plan Act allowed for. And it's kind of the type of things that housing advocates hoped that more towns would do. But many just never opted for that choice.

WSHU: So the bottom line, it seems here that the COVID relief money that came for local development — we've missed an opportunity here. Would you say that?

AB: I mean, housing advocates certainly would. I mean, all of the other expenses that towns and cities made, they're obviously eligible under the ARPA funds. The ARPA funds and the ARPA law, allowed wide discretion from the municipalities on how to use that money.

But it's very clear that the signs and signals out of the Biden administration was that they had hoped that towns and cities throughout the country and county governments would use more of this money to help expand the amount of housing stock available in the United States at a time whenever home prices and rental rates are going through the roof. And in Connecticut, the data is pretty clear that many local governments just did not see that as the best use of the money.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Fairfield County. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.