Affordable housing aspirations dominated the early panels of an all-day conference in Hartford Friday dedicated to what Connecticut may look like in 2035 given investments expected to be funded using federal infrastructure dollars.
State and local officials gathered with developers and others at the Hartford Club for the ConnStruct Infrastructure Summit, a series of panel discussions on opportunities for investment enabled by the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, spearheaded by the Biden administration and passed by Congress two years ago.
Although morning speakers touched on how the funding was being used — Revenue Services Commissioner Mark Boughton said Connecticut had outpaced 33 other states in securing grants under the federal law — much of the morning was dedicated to sketching a vision of Connecticut that resolved the state’s dire shortage of affordable housing.
“The moving vans have turned around,” Gov. Ned Lamont said, citing Connecticut’s recent population growth after a decade of relative stagnation. “Demographics is destiny and we’ve gone from losing to winning.”
Lamont said recent housing developments have skewed toward multi-family homes in downtown areas rather than single family homes.
However, the governor also touched on the resistance to new housing developments in many communities, which has impeded efforts to boost housing stock and prompted lawmakers to consider reforms to the state’s zoning laws. Lamont said housing projects could improve communities by renovating vacant properties.
“What we’re trying to do in terms of all the ‘not in my backyard’ stuff is a lot of peoples’ backyard is … old manufacturing, empty office buildings, and here in Hartford for example, we seem to have acre upon acre of parking lots,” the governor said. “So what we’re doing is trying to convert. This is where the housing is going to be.”
During a panel discussion, West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said that multi-family housing around transit-oriented development was an important factor in a community’s growth, but could also be controversial among residents worried about their property values.
Lamont asked Cantor how she handled those politics. She said the answer involved both community outreach and successful projects. Cantor pointed to one such development on Steele Road in West Hartford, where residents worried about its impact on traffic.
“That development has proven to be such a quality development,” Cantor said. “Young people, retired people live there and we can refer to that development and say ‘This is okay. This will actually raise your home value and will not decrease your home value.’ Those kinds of things are really important.”
Geoffrey Sager, president of the Metro Realty Group, echoed those thoughts during a separate panel later in the morning. Sager, whose group has been developing affordable housing since the 1990s, called the current demand for housing “insatiable” but said he dealt with the “fear of affordable housing all the time.”
Sager said communities typically get over that fear once the housing is in place.
“In the five towns where we’ve built affordable housing, after we’ve built the first development, we’ve always been invited back to build more,” he said. “There’s apprehension at first but once they see it, it goes away.”
Shelton Mayor Mark Lauretti attributed part of the problem to misconceptions about the tenets of affordable housing developments.
“People think the worst in smaller communities about who’s coming — the element that’s coming,” Lauretti said. “And the element that comes are people that go to work, people that are raising families, people that work in the trades; police officers; firemen; teachers; public city hall employees. They all fall in that category.”