Affordable Housing and the Economy
Credit: Dave Granlund, / CTNewsJunkie via Cagle Cartoons / ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Susan Bigelow

A new and very interesting survey was released last week by Growing Together CT, a coalition of diverse nonprofit groups, showing that contrary to conventional wisdom Connecticut residents support building affordable housing throughout the state–even to the point of overriding local zoning laws.

The survey of 2,562 Connecticut residents taken January 23 to 30, 2023, found that 86% said making housing more affordable was either somewhat or very important, 78% said housing in the state was either very or somewhat unaffordable, and, perhaps most importantly, 61% said the state should “step in” when “towns won’t act to make housing more affordable.”

That’s actually pretty impressive, considering how little people here like it when the state meddles in municipal affairs. Maybe those old attitudes about the importance of local control in all things are changing. Maybe we’re finally ready to force our reluctant town governments to build housing for everyone, not just the people who can afford to live there. Maybe the age of the NIMBY is coming to an end.

And indeed, the survey seems to bear that out. 70% of respondents said they either somewhat or strongly supported building housing that is affordable for low- and middle-income residents in their communities. 67% said they thought their community was either somewhat or very unaffordable. Yes, that’s lower than the 78% who said the state as a whole was unaffordable, but it’s still a remarkable number.

That’s the good news. People recognize the problem and are open to solutions that involve the state. Does that mean we can finally build subsidized housing for low-income residents in Glastonbury and Darien? Well… maybe not yet.

What people are a lot less clear on is what housing solutions would actually look like. A majority of residents are in favor of building more housing for middle-income residents in the state (68%) and in their towns (60%). However, none of the other options, from starter homes (43% state, 42% local), to subsidized housing for low- and middle-income families (40% state, 38% local), apartments/condominiums (29% state, 30% local), and building more housing on single-family lots (17% state, 18% local) drew a majority. Therefore, it looks like all we can agree on is more housing for “middle-income” people, but what does it mean to be middle-income? Is that a household that makes $50,000 a year? How about $100,000? $200,000? $500,000? Where’s the cutoff? Everyone has different answers.

I worry that “affordable housing” in the minds of a lot of Connecticut residents is still a single-family detached house on a half-acre lot, just a somewhat smaller one than elsewhere in town. The low support for apartments near bus and train stops (28% state, 24% local), which is one of the smartest ways to create affordable housing, is disheartening.

I also worry that the survey asked about building in respondents’ communities, and not in their actual neighborhoods. If a developer said they wanted to build affordable housing somewhere in town, people would by and large be okay. Towns are big, and there are parts of them that people will ignore. But if that developer said they wanted to build affordable housing just down the street? The petitions, the concerned citizens’ groups, the letter-writing campaigns, and the yard signs would spring up overnight.

Here’s an example: I live a street away from some farmland. It’s just a beautiful open space. But it’s also a prime location for affordable housing – it’s within easy walking distance to the town’s commercial center where a lot of low-income folks work. I’d be for putting up subsidized apartments there, but I’d also be sad about what was lost. Change is hard – and I know people around here who would be much more resistant to the idea than I am. It would take a lot to sell them on it.

So what should legislators take away from this survey? Should they press ahead with zoning reform, imposing penalties on towns that don’t rework their ordinances to allow for more affordable housing? Absolutely they should! But what the state needs to do is be both the carrot and the stick. Gov. Ned Lamont proposed millions in subsidies to developers to build housing for middle- and low-income families, and that should be part of this strategy. 

But I think perhaps most importantly the public needs to be educated on what it is the state wants to see in our towns. Let us all know what affordable housing should look like, on what kinds of parcels it should be built, and why it’s a good thing. That’s how we can turn those majorities for doing a very-unclear something about housing into majorities for apartments and condos in our towns and in our neighborhoods.

Because one thing this survey is clear on is that doing nothing is not what people want. Not anymore.

Avatar photo

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of or any of the author's other employers.