Liz Dupont-Diehl / ctnewsjunkie
Jonathan Cabral of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority introduced keynote speaker Alan Mallach, center. Moderator Susan Thomas of the Melville Charitable Trust is at right. (Liz Dupont-Diehl / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT – It was very nearly standing room only at Hartford’s Lyceum Monday as 120 people turned out to hear author and expert Alan Mallach delve into affordable housing – what it is, the situation nationally and in Connecticut, and what can be done to help families and landlords.

Mallach, of the Center for American Progress, joked that his talk, “Understanding America’s Multiple Affordable Housing Crises,” would require an advanced degree in statistics to understand.

But his analysis of market forces and policy solutions was clear.

Housing is considered “affordable” if it costs no more than 30% of a person or family’s gross income. If housing costs more than 50% of gross income, it is considered severely unaffordable.

A recent report from the Partnership for Strong Communities that hosted Mallach Monday found nearly half of Connecticut’s renter population spends over 30% of their income on housing. A quarter of this population spends over 50% of their income on housing, virtually ensuring that these households will not have enough money left over for health care, child care, groceries, and other essential expenses.

In 2018, Connecticut had the 9th highest housing costs in the country, with only 38 affordable rental units per 100 extremely low-income households.

Nationally, Mallach explained, housing is affordable in most places for most people, with two key exceptions.

Along the east and west coasts of the country, and in metropolitan and large metropolitan areas, housing it is vastly less affordable. In Connecticut, housing is less affordable in Fairfield County.

And poor people, throughout the country, are paying far more than 30% of their income for housing.  “Low- and very low-income families are living on the edge of survival everywhere,” Mallach said.

Mallach broke down the costs involved in maintaining housing, identifying them as a driver in establishing rental costs. Landlords won’t rent housing for less than it costs to maintain, he said. “Rents are driven by costs,” he said. “It’s about the basic, systemic cost of providing housing.”

In Hartford, an eviction “crisis” is leading to cascading negative consequences. Every year, one in 18-20 tenants is evicted, or 1,500 – 2,000 evictions – destabilizing families and neighborhoods and undermining children’s futures, Mallach said.

He also pointed out racial disparities in the Hartford region. The three towns with the highest percentage of minority residents – Hartford, East Hartford and New Britain – also have the lowest incomes.

Policy solutions are important but complex. Simply producing more housing, Mallach said, can result in “filtering” – meaning higher income people get the new or best housing and lower-income people don’t benefit significantly.

Two key existing policy tools are the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, and Section 8 vouchers, through which the government pays any difference between 30% of income and rent.

“Ironically, to live in so called ‘affordable’ housing, one in six people also have a voucher,” Mallach said.

“And having a voucher program doesn’t mean you get a voucher,” he added. Only one in four families who qualifies gets a voucher.  “It’s truly like winning the lottery.”

New Jersey is one state showing recent progress on affordable housing – due in part to its affirmative requirement that towns provide affordable housing. Connecticut doesn’t have any such requirement, which makes it easier for developers to build affordable housing in cities and towns where it already exists.

“If I had to pick one thing to solve the housing crises,” he said, “it would be a national housing allowance to ensure no family has to pay too much for housing. The costs of housing are systemic and fixed… I don’t think that’s too much to ask in a country with the resources we have in the United States.”

The audience members questioned the role of the state and federal governments, homeownership, and what municipalities can and should do.  A broader discussion is needed, Mallach said, about how exactly to maximize public funds and ensure quality, affordable housing for everyone.
With Hartford’s abundant stock of three-family homes, Mallach said, “great good” could be done by offering support and assistance for low-income people to become homeowners and landlords “in a way that makes sense for them.”

The event was part of a series hosted by the Partnership for Strong Communities.

“For Connecticut to grow, our state must have safe, stable housing for all levels of income,” PSC Executive Director Kiley Gosselin said. “Currently, our state has a shortage of nearly 80,000 homes that are affordable for our lower-income residents – drastically increasing their risk of homelessness and housing instability. We have to be more creative and open-minded about where to use our resources and what additional tools we need to support housing opportunity the state.”

She thanked Mallach, the former director of housing and economic development in Trenton, New Jersey, who now teaches in the graduate planning program at Pratt institute in New York City, for bringing his perspective.

“With decades of national experience in community development, Alan brings perspective to Connecticut’s struggles with high housing costs,” she added. “By analyzing how Connecticut can make its housing policy more effective and equitable, he adds his voice to a very important conversation that we, as a state, need to have.”