I previously wrote that when it comes to housing politics in Connecticut, it’s not just a race issue but also a class concern. I also offered the historical and home rule complexities that limit economic development in Connecticut. I offered an oft-overlooked viewpoint; as expected, I received hostile and supportive comments. I also suggested that I would outline several policy proposals that have been implemented in nearby states, like New York and New Jersey.
Connecticut remains at an economic development crossroads and our General Assembly and municipalities are debating various proposals to address housing issues. Neighboring states’ approaches to housing can be a starting point but not always the solution. In fact, this is why public policy can be helpful in addressing something as nuanced as economic development. Examining policies is the very reason why I teach public policy and research urban redevelopment. By sharing a few models of how nearby states have addressed economic development, hopefully we can understand, adapt and even improve a few policies in Connecticut.
As a former New Haven City Plan commissioner, I spoke with WSHU last week about how New Haven addressed affordable housing with recent downtown projects. They also inquired about my research on economic development approaches in New York and New Jersey cities as several proposals are outlined in my dissertation and book.
For years, a number of cities suggested — or required — developers to have income-inclusive housing. For example, a certain percentage of housing (usually 10 to 30% of units) have been reserved for residents that are middle income, defined as $30,000 to $50,000. Most cities also grant incentives to developers to build in specific communities where new and affordable housing is needed. These incentives could range from reduced property taxes for a specific period (tax abatements) to zoning changes (variances). Although this approach has been widely utilized in nearby states, these incentives have not been as widespread in Connecticut municipalities. But income-based subsidized housing at newly constructed projects like New Haven’s 360 State Street have been early starts in this policy direction.
Another housing approach is vocational housing, where a majority percentage of units are reserved for municipal public safety employees such as police and fire personnel or educators, based on their income. Vocational housing has been widely implemented in northern Jersey cities and Hartford has recently implemented their Teachers Village project. Many residents appreciate public employees as neighbors so they can work where they live.
Finally, a policy proposal that I mentioned in last month’s column is transit-oriented development (TOD), where new development centers around existing train stations, bus hubs or light rail stops. I have studied much in this policy area especially as a former Jersey City community board president. The incentives and grants were tremendous in my former neighborhood because all levels of government and developers sought to redevelop communities that were often underutilized. Plus, the market demanded new housing and so many residents (young and empty-nesters especially) wanted to be less car-dependent and use light rail, subway, car- and bike-sharing options.
Connecticut has a lot to learn in these policy areas. We have locations where TODs could flourish and I offered some perspectives for a University of New Haven lecture about the West Haven train station. New Haven’s State Street Station has been recently designated as a TOD by state and local officials. And the neighborhood surrounding New Haven Union Station is on the verge of redevelopment. Beyond Connecticut’s cities, many of our suburbs have also undergone retrofitting their traditional zoning laws for multipurpose development, such as my hometown West Hartford’s Blue Back Square.
But Connecticut has several limitations in adapting these proposals and other economic development policies. With our reliance on home rule or local autonomy, state government can do little to address new incentives for redevelopment. It will take local government to be bold enough to prioritize policy approaches that work for their unique municipalities. Without county or regional government, municipalities will also have to be innovative working across town lines to consider various housing proposals and addressing future economic development.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associate dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
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