(An abbreviated version of the following article was published in the Hartford Courant's Place section Oct. 5, 2003)

Transportation & Housing in Connecticut: Economic Links & Policy Disconnects

William H. Ethier

Transportation systems have been called the lifeblood of a state’s economy. Over the last couple of years, the state’s political and business leaders have rightly focused much attention on our transportation systems as they struggle to find better ways to deliver goods to market and people to their jobs. People will argue over adopted solutions but the attention was long overdue.

However, to ensure that the state’s economy thrives, an efficient, well-connected transportation system is not enough. It is long past the time when we need to address another crucial connection in the chain to a healthy economy. Policy makers need to understand the obvious – that people start their daily trips to their jobs from their homes. Looked at another way, homes are where jobs go at night. If transportation systems are the economy’s lifeblood, then homes are the skeleton upon which everything else is connected.

Workers, retirees, families and all other citizens need and deserve the homes they want from which to start and end their daily journey. But therein lies a major problem with the economic development efforts in Connecticut. There is a huge disconnect between the state’s policies of supporting economic development, job creation and market expansion and the rest of the state’s vast and varied anti-housing policies and actions.

Throughout Connecticut, too many municipalities routinely deny or delay approvals of residential developments, severely restricting the home building industry’s ability to bring homes to market and driving up the cost of what can be built. The homes that one sees now being built have been in the approval pipeline sometimes for years, producing a tragic waste of financial and human resources that figures into the price of each of those homes. This translates into sticker shock and the inability or unwillingness of workers from out of state to relocate here or the inability or unwillingness of current residences to move up the housing ladder. Our very high cost of living, of which housing is a major component, also contributes to Connecticut’s brain drain. People need to ask where their children can afford to live and where they will be allowed to live when they grow up.

The number of building permits for new residential units actually issued by Connecticut municipalities flies in the face of the anti-housing passion that seems to resonate in many communities. From 1990 through 2002, Connecticut issued an average of 9,082 building permits for new housing per year. This compares to 18,300 per year for the decade of the 1980s. In many other parts of the country, cities by themselves annually issue residential building permits at a rate of three to five times the number issued in the entire state of Connecticut.

Compared to the rest of the country and even to our own history, Connecticut is experiencing little actual growth. So, why do some local folks get in such a panic about new housing? Whether a vocal minority of the population or not, the NIMBY’s (Not In My Back Yard), BANANA’s (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) and CAVE’s (Citizen’s Against Virtually Anything) come to life at countless local meetings of planning, zoning, wetlands and a myriad other land use boards. They succeed through local permit denials and delays, lot restrictions and excessive fees in creating a vast, hydra-like anti-housing policy.

These anti-housing plays are acted out weekly, if not nightly, on stages throughout Connecticut. The reality, unfortunately, is that the consequences of these local government performances have a drastic, accumulating adverse affect on our statewide economic well-being.

Particularly in America, people choose where they want to live and the type of house or apartment they want to live in. The government and land use planners cannot make these choices with consistent success in achieving what people want. Builders, too, cannot choose places and designs contrary to buyers’ wishes and stay in business. State policy makers have for too long taken housing for granted, but a thriving housing market that supplies the homes people want at a reasonable price is vital to a successful economy.

Without new homes, new workers have fewer choices on where to live. When new workers see fewer choices in Connecticut on where to live and the type of home they want to live in then they will choose to locate elsewhere. Employers then have fewer new workers to choose from. Employers also find it increasingly difficult to provide the wages required by their employees to afford Connecticut’s housing.

Contrary to popular belief, issuing new housing permits also helps the bottom line of local tax coffers. Put bias and predetermination aside and just look at the numbers. If municipalities want to improve their local tax revenues, they should examine the number of public school age children that come from, say, the last 100 new homes they permitted to be built. Look also at the taxes, fees and local economic activity generated from those 100 homes and other public services required by them. Then decide if new homes are in their best economic interest. More often than not, new homes prove to be a tax plus for municipalities and are good for local businesses.

A new statewide housing policy must be adopted to feed our other collective efforts on economic development. To date, state housing policies have addressed with various levels of success or failure the necessities of low income people and the homeless. These efforts should be further enhanced since there are very real housing needs among these groups – even here in wealthy Connecticut. But a new comprehensive housing policy should also address the housing needs of all people at all income levels and this can be done without new government financial expenditures.

However, going beyond addressing the important low income housing needs is where it gets really politically tough. You see, beginning about fifty to sixty years ago, the state gave local governments the authority to zone and subdivide land and create all the other various local boards and commissions to control the private sector’s use of land. State statutes today still form the basic legal authority for local governments’ land use regulations. But the limitations on this authority have been increasingly ignored and the powers granted have been greatly expanded by mountains of local government ordinances and procedures. A new, broad statewide housing policy would mean the state has to reexamine its delegation of land use authority to municipalities and make it work better for all.

The new policy’s goal should be to make the housing approval process throughout Connecticut more efficient in terms of both time and in how we use our land, thus producing more affordable homes and apartments for all segments of society. It is not enough to have just low income housing policies and assume that market rate housing will take care of itself because the anti-housing delays and decisions at the local level substantially affect the availability and ultimate price of market rate housing.

Of course, we should preserve what’s important to Connecticut’s citizens – open space and the character of our communities. Connecticut has come a long way toward achieving these goals through its open space purchase programs, historic preservation and village district laws. But, to counter the NOPE (Not On Planet Earth) crowd who assert we are paving over Connecticut, a reality check is also necessary here.

After 380 years of European settlement and American growth only 8% to 28% of the state is developed depending on who is doing the measuring. [According to the most recent satellite data compiled by UCONN, which is the most accurate data available of land cover types in the state, less than 20% of the state's entire land mass has been developed.] That means that a minimum of 80% of Connecticut remains undeveloped, a fact that can be confirmed by any frequent flyer in and out of Connecticut’s airports or by anyone who dares look behind the development we have into the woods. In fact, there is no shortage of land in Connecticut as a whole. What we are faced with is an artificially imposed shortage of lots.

While we proceed in preserving what’s important to most people and in revitalizing urban areas so more people will choose to live there, a sampling of specific elements in a statewide housing policy could include:

  • Incentives or requirements that make the local process for approving new homes or apartments truly administrative in nature, especially on land identified as appropriate for residences in a local plan of conservation and development. The current subdivision process is filled with discretion and delays that destroys the utility of this supposedly administrative process.
  • More streamlined local land use decisions by doing away with the decades old separation of planning and zoning. At the very least, planning and zoning commissions should be combined in every municipality and, more to the point, our separate planning and zoning state statutes should be combined and simplified with appropriate restrictions, standards and requirements imposed on local land use authorities. An even better approach would recognize that the eighty-year old land use model by the United States Department of Commerce that proposed separate zoning and planning statutes, on which Connecticut and most other states base their land use laws, has run its course. It’s past time to think about a comprehensive rewrite to create a new land use control system that preserves what we need to preserve, develops what we need to develop and creates balanced growth for our future well being.
  • Automatic zoning density bonuses to encourage higher density, open space or mixed-use developments that are designed smart, preserving community character and placed where the market wants them.
  • Consideration of the sprawl consequences of both the state and local governments’ open space purchase programs and locally imposed large lot requirements. By purchasing more land for open space closer in to urban areas, or by forcing all new homes to be placed on large lots, new developments needed by a growing work force and changing demographics are automatically pushed out to outlying areas. Thus, the state should develop incentives or requirements that counter these pro-sprawl state and local decisions.
  • Incentives or requirements that make local development standards and regulations more reasonable. For example, builders often try in vain to gain approval of alternative land use designs that group housing units together while preserving more land for useable open space, that provide for narrower streets to cut down on impervious surfaces, or build more mixed-use land developments that combine residential, commercial and recreational uses. All of these would be welcome by many in the housing and commercial markets but are routinely denied. While there will likely always be a need for large homes on large lots to satisfy a segment of the new home marketplace, municipalities must accept the alternative desires of the rest of the marketplace.

Since the state over fifty years ago first enabled municipalities to exercise local control over land use, it is now incumbent on the state to review what local governments have done with it and help our municipalities make the right land use decisions. This effort must match or exceed the import of policies that address the state’s transportation needs, tax and regulatory burdens, work force development gaps and other economic development impediments. New housing is a critical part of the infrastructure of any economy. Until the state comprehensively and aggressively addresses the housing wants and needs of its current and future citizens at all income levels our other efforts to improve our economy will be for naught and we will continue to lag behind the rest of the nation.

William H. Ethier, CAE, is the CEO of the Home Builders Association of Connecticut and was a member of the Place board of contributors. He’s been a land use and environmental attorney since 1983.

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