Should Connecticut’s Governor Fix Local Problems?

Two recent opinion pieces about housing in the Hartford Courant caught my attention.  One, by David Fink, was prominently displayed on December 29.  The second, by House majority leader Jason Rojas, appeared on January 3rd.

I’ll start by saying that I know very little about housing in Connecticut.  David Fink apparently does, because the Courant says he is a “housing policy consultant.”  Jason Rojas’s biography on the House Democrats’ website suggests that housing is one of his primary policy interests.  My relative ignorance notwithstanding, I write to challenge what they said in the Courant.

David and Jason both say Connecticut has a housing “crisis.”  I was disappointed that neither gave any direct evidence of the nature of the “crisis.”  All that David tells us is that half of the state’s renters and a third of homeowners pay more than 30% of their income for housing.  Is that number historically high in Connecticut?  In the country?  Is this problem unique to Connecticut?  Is it expected to continue?  Percentages alone do not make a crisis.

Jason is a little more forthright about the nature of the “crisis”:  He says it’s about “restrictions on the development of multi-family housing and affordable single-family homes perpetuating economic and racial isolation.”  In other words, he says the problem is that poor people and minorities from our cities can’t find housing in the wealthy suburban towns, which means in turn that those people can’t enjoy the benefits available to residents of those towns.  That may be a bad thing, but without more it’s hard to say it’s a crisis.

Like most politicians, David and Jason exagerrate.  Housing in Connecticut is not a “crisis.”  Recent airline flight cancellations are not a “disaster,” as Senator Blumenthal would have us believe.  This nonstop hyperbole from politicians is no different from George Santos telling us he worked for Citigroup.  It’s bad leadership.

Why am I not convinced there’s a housing crisis?  Connecticut’s population has increased only negligibly over the past 20 years.  I’ve seen houses being built around greater Hartford for years, and greater Hartford’s apartment inventory has been growing nicely for years, as well.  One website I found says that over the past 15 years, Connecticut has hovered around 1.8 people for every housing unit, without significant change.  Where is the crisis?

Okay, I get that David and Jason are talking about affordability.  People with low and moderate incomes are spending more money to acquire housing than they would like, but there’s a difference between not being able to afford a particular housing unit, or housing in a particular town, and not having any housing available.  That is, we may have an affordability crisis, but that’s different from a housing crisis.

David and Jason ask us to believe that all manner of wonderful things will happen if we would just put affordable housing at the top of the state’s agenda.  David tells us that by building more housing, Connecticut will attract new residents from New York City.  Really?  Where’s the evidence that available housing increases population?  People move for jobs; they don’t move for empty apartments.  Once these people move to Connecticut, David says tax revenues will increase, and then taxes will be reduced, making everyone happy.  It’s his version of trickle-down economics.  Also, somehow our schools will get better and education will improve.  Jason says that more government intervention will enhance free markets, an obvious oxymoron.  He says better housing will lead to more equitable wealth accumulation, better educational attainment, better health outcomes, better environment and a more equitable justice system

I’m not buying any of this.  If building houses magically solved all of society’s problems, every state in the nation would be building houses.

The problem is affordability, and David’s and Jason’s solution is to use government to lower the cost of living for poor people and minorities.  David and Jason ignore that Connecticut is in the northeast, sandwiched between Boston and New York.   The cost of living, and of housing, simply is high in this part of the country.  These facts are the result of complex economic factors that have been at work since the end of World War II.  In fact, state government in the northeast has contributed to our high cost of living.  Making Connecticut a moderate-cost island in the middle of the American northeast is a pipe dream.

I won’t pretend that adequate, affordable housing is not a problem.  I’m sure that David and Jason could show me that thousands of families are living in substandard housing and truly are struggling to make ends meet.  Those families need help.  However, the answer is not for the government to lower their cost of living – government can’t do that.  The answer is to increase their after-tax income.

How can we increase after-tax income?  How about starting with eliminating the Connecticut sales tax?  It’s the most regressive tax we have.  How about increasing exemptions and credits, so that low- and moderate-income families pay less income tax?  How about increasing the minimum wage – the current $15 rate might be enough in those parts of the country with a lower cost of living than Connecticut, but asking a family of four, with two full-time minimum-wage earners, to live on $60,000 a year is a stretch, especially if they’re paying sales and income tax.  How about serious and effective change to make Connecticut more attractive to employers, so that LEGO stays in Connecticut and other employers move here?  More employment would raise household incomes, making our existing housing stock more affordable.  All those issues would face strong headwinds at the state capital, of course, but at least those issues are problems worth addressing.  Trying to lower the cost of housing in Connecticut with legislation is just as difficult, and it won’t solve the problem.

My real gripe is that David and Jason jump to the conclusion that affordable housing is a problem that state government must address, now or ever.  Why do they jump to that conclusion?  Housing is a local issue, not a state issue, but they know that local change in housing policy is a non-starter.  It’s been obvious for decades that most of our wealthy towns will do everything they can to limit low- and moderate-income housing within their borders.  In the face of that reality, David and Jason seek a state-wide solution.  They want the state government to override the wishes of town citizens in order to achieve an objective that the towns don’t want: poor and minority people moving in.  Do they really think that state-imposed housing policy will be any more palatable to the suburban political power base than tax increases?  If so, they’re ignoring reality.

What is the state going to do about housing?   Is it going to override local planning and zoning rules?  Is it going to take over planning of community redevelopment?  Suppose an educational consultant concluded that there’s an educational crisis in your town?  Should the Governor to take over your schools?  And yet, David, a housing consultant, says that’s exactly what the Governor should do for housing.

And so it is that I return to my continuing theme:  Connecticut cannot succeed so long as it ignores the institutional dysfunction that is caused by our municipal governance structure.  David says the Governor is the only person who can solve the housing crisis, but he’s wrong.  Affordable housing in greater Hartford is a community problem, not a state problem.  The solution is not a state government takeover; the solution is to fix community governance.

I would guess that 75% of the housing problem David is talking about is located in a half dozen municipalities, Hartford, New Haven, New Britain, Waterbury, and Bridgeport among them.  Why do those municipalities need help from the Governor?  Because those cities can’t afford what’s needed, and because the surrounding towns never have been willing to assume their share of the burden, either economically or in actual housing units.  Why won’t they help?  Because they aren’t legally obligated to help, and because their emotional commitment to their neighbors ends at the town boundary.  Wethersfield has no interest in building or paying for the housing that many of the residents Hartford need.

If there’s a housing crisis, it’s because Connecticut has a governance crisis.  We have a half dozen or more lovely, wealthy towns surrounding each of our poor cities.  The cities can’t afford to solve their housing problems, and the towns don’t think they own the housing problem.  What would happen if we combined each of those cities without its surrounding towns?  There would be one municipality, with one government elected by all of the people, with one stream of tax revenue, with shared successes and failures.  That municipality would determine the extent of the housing needs of its poorest citizens, and it would have the resources to address the issue.   And, for example, Hartford and its surrounding towns merged would save $100 million annually over the current grossly duplicative budgets of eight municipalities.  We could put in place a substantial reduction in property taxes and have enough left over to address housing in ways that make sense for the area.  We, the people who live here, could decide what to do about housing, as we should.  We shouldn’t run to the Governor and cede another piece of local control to the state.

The problem with my approach, of course, is that we don’t seem to have the political will to talk frankly about the governance problem and to fix it.  I understand that.  But I have trouble getting excited about this week’s crisis, then next week’s crisis, when in fact nothing the state does about any of these crises will be more than a band-aid that creates another layer of governmental bureaucracy.

And so, David and Jason, I’ll ask you a simple question:  If we’re going to tilt at windmills, why not at least pick the windmill that actually would change Connecticut?


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