Published in The Day

By The Day Editorial Board

Imagine the scenario in March 2033 if the Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut had not by then been ensconced for a decade among the forces that shape the housing market.

It is not far-fetched to imagine a shortage of highly skilled and always needed workers -- nurses, teachers, firefighters, shipyard workers, for example -- who had not been able to find housing they could afford, or had grown weary of too-small quarters for their families because there was nothing affordable to rent or buy. How many would stay, even for these skilled jobs, if their commute lengthened the work day by two hours or more? How many more young people from eastern Connecticut hometowns would be moving out of state?

The question is not if eastern Connecticut towns can keep holding affordable housing development at bay; the issue is whether people of any socioeconomic strata or any communities would be better off if they did. The answer is clearly No.

Fortunately, an impressive array of seven prominent community nonprofits and their funding allies -- numerous banks and foundations, led by the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut -- has formed the housing center. The center will shepherd solutions to what its founders see as “one of the biggest problems in eastern Connecticut, if not the state and the country,” starting March 16. Attorney Beth Sabilia, a practicing real estate attorney, will close her practice and resign from her position as a Waterford selectman to become executive director on March 27.

The Day salutes this effort as a vital step if towns are going to change their default response to affordable housing proposals away from “what can we do to head this off?” The news staff has been extensively reporting on the region’s housing crisis in its Housing Solutions Lab project, documenting the shortage, the Catch-22s and the fundamental lack of equity and opportunity.

Historically, intentional development of housing that costs no more than 30 percent of the occupants’ income has been a multi-party exercise -- a developer, real estate brokers, landowner, town staff and land-use boards and commissions. Some of the parties welcome the state goal of at least 10 percent of a municipality’s housing stock being affordable, as measured against local averages. Others resist. The Not in My Backyard syndrome comes into play, as do some legitimate reasons for not developing certain parcels. The process frequently grows adversarial.

Much better would be a concerted effort to re-examine municipal plans of conservation and development so as to encourage responsible use of resources that will allow rather than silently block attractive, affordable developments. Invite active participation from the public in identifying opportunities rather than simply blocking a specific proposal that presents itself.

The Day foresees the partnership of Connecticut College, Eastern Connecticut State University, The Housing Collective, Partnership for Strong Communities, Regional Planning Association and United Way of Southeastern Connecticut becoming a nexus for addressing the concerns and misapprehensions that keep towns from welcoming affordable housing plans.

We hope to see a change in the status quo so that long, long before 2033, the collective effort of towns, developers, housing advocates and the real estate market will solve a big problem that can only get worse. We await with interest the potential involvement of lenders, brokers and planners in a push for equity and opportunity, and what a collaborative effort could do to open up the market and build homes.

In their marketing materials, real estate brokers prefer to say they sell “homes” rather than “houses.” Who does not recognize the appeal of home? By contrast, a proposal to develop residential real estate that will sell for less than the market rate is always “housing.” Whether rented or purchased, a house is a home. Eastern Connecticut sorely needs affordable hometowns -- for the next generation, for job growth, for equity and opportunity.