New Haven’s Affordable Housing Taskforce embraced a plan in 2019 that proposed local and regional solutions to the lack of affordable housing. Now, residents are in the midst of an ongoing debate between local and state officials about proposed zoning reform.
Kevin McCarthy, East Rock community management team co-chair, has lived in New Haven for more than 30 years. He has seen the city propose solutions like subsidies and penalties on landlords to increase affordable housing.
But many residents are still burdened by rent that costs a third of their paycheck — often much more.
“New Haven really is two cities. It’s a wonderful city if you’re doing OK financially or if you’re associated with Yale. It’s also a city where there’s a great deal of poverty,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said in the past few years the city has had a housing boom. But the majority of the units built are market rate — out of the price range of many of the city's residents.
“When we have developers come in, one of the questions that routinely gets asked is 'Are you going to have any affordable housing?' And the answer almost universally is 'No.'”
McCarthy said the housing that is created is not affordable to someone that is working class.
“If you’re a single person working a minimum-wage job, you can afford a rent of about $600 a month. Places like that don’t exist in New Haven,” McCarthy said.
Two years ago, the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force put out a list of 44 recommendations. Among the recommendations: expand zoning laws to allow new forms of housing like rooming houses and accessory dwellings — McCarthy calls them granny flats; and enforce penalties on landlords who don’t maintain housing quality standards.
Karen Dubois-Walton, New Haven housing authority chair, and she was part of that task force. She said the idea was to give people their housing of choice.
“Our goal is that when you drive through our communities, things don’t stick out to you as that must be where the poor people live, but we are creating things that are high-quality where families feel valued when they live there,” Dubois-Walton said.
Dubois-Walton said just 30% of New Haven’s housing qualifies as affordable. That’s still good for Connecticut — the state’s had some of the least affordable housing in the country for years, especially for renters.
“That’s far more than you find in any of our surrounding towns and it is a very similar pattern you will find when you visit Hartford or Bridgeport. The cities have the bulk of the affordable housing concentrated in a small number of neighborhoods and the surrounding towns really offer very little in terms of opportunities for families,” Dubois-Walton said.
To fix that, the housing task force made a recommendation that’s proved controversial — revise state zoning laws to crack down on towns with less than 10% affordable housing.
A bill to do just that was at the center of a marathon Zoom hearing in March that ran for almost 24 hours — making it clear there’s a lot of disagreement on the issue. A total of 340 people signed up to testify at the Planning and Development meeting regarding Senate Bill 1024.
Opponents especially went after one proposal that would allow developers to build multi-family housing in small towns without going through the usual public hearing process.
In the hearing, Westport resident Laurence Tereno said to allow outside developers to build without giving locals a say would be an abdication of democratic principles.
“None of our residents oppose affordable housing, but cramming numerous apartment buildings in a very small residential area is just plain counterproductive and dangerous … In many cases all you’re creating is an economic windfall for developers without any real affordable housing,” Tereno said.
Some on the committee were skeptical, too, including state Representative Doug Dubitsky, a Republican from Chaplin in sparsely-populated northeastern Connecticut.
“Why would forcing a town like mine to allow four-unit apartment buildings in a single-family zone — how would that possibly encourage people of color to move into my town, which has been losing people for years,” Dubitsky said.
Jonathan Wharton, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, served as New Haven’s city planning commissioner until March 2020. He said it can lead to conflicts when cities try to influence regional zoning laws.
“Well, I have my concerns,” he said. “A lot of these decisions are made at the county level in other states. And by creating what they’re suggesting, it’s very difficult... to suggest that on behalf of New Haven these other towns are now going to come together because of the state.”
Wharton admitted it’s no secret that zoning laws in the state are behind. But says what works for one jurisdiction may not work for another. Housing is not a one-size-fits-all solution.
“Towns have had to find pathways of complying to be certain that there’s some kind of affordable housing options. But then towns have been not only so much resistant — we know that there are — but they’ve also found ways of going around it by saying, 'well, we’ll give a voucher instead. Or we’ll have people go to this town instead,'” Wharton said.
Wharton said local officials must work to communicate with residents about policies that will work. New Haven cannot fill the need for affordable housing by itself but Wharton fears an attempt to introduce legislation for statewide zoning reform could lead to lawsuits.
“I’m not suggesting that a state government can’t solve that problem. I think a state government can be helpful in being a negotiator between towns. But I think to use the rule of law to enforce it and push it is going to send the wrong signal and... will lead to a backlash of local government. And that’s my biggest fear,” Wharton said.
Wharton said one solution may be “vocational housing” projects. That’s housing for teachers, police officers and firefighters, in addition to income-based housing. Examples come from housing models in Jersey City and Newark.
And another one — called Teacher’s Village — opened in Hartford, Connecticut in 2019 with 60 units at a range of prices, and even workspaces for teachers.
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.