Hudspeth: A smoother road to affordable housing

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Affordable housing is a controversial subject in Wilton, but it doesn’t have to be. The need has grown even more apparent in recent months as national focus has turned to the evil of past government-directed housing segregation (“de jure segregation” in legal-speak). That de jure segregation has been implemented over much of the past century, and its destructive consequences persist to this day.

These government policies can be traced back on a national scale to the encouragement of adoption of racially restrictive local zoning laws by the Harding Administration beginning in 1921, to FDR’s racially restricted government-constructed housing in the 1930s and then his administration’s government-built racially restrictive housing for wartime production workers. It continued postwar in Democratic and Republican administrations as FHA-and-VA-financed housing imposed redlining and other explicitly racially restrictive requirements upon the Levitts and others building on a massive scale during the post-war housing boom. If those developers wanted government-backed financing for their projects (and their housing couldn’t have been built without it), the housing had to be racially restricted.

Some say, “That’s ancient history. Why raise it now?” The reason is simply that the results of that “ancient history” very much color the present day. Blacks couldn’t enter neighborhoods based on restrictions that were government enforced — including by our courts as well as the executive and legislative branches of both federal and state government and by local zoning boards across the country. The bars to entry directly affected Blacks’ ability to enjoy the benefits of rapidly rising home equity in “nice” suburbs through much of the latter half of the 20th century and also denied them access to the excellent public schools serving those attractive communities.

Some then add, “OK, but that was all corrected by things like Brown v. Board of Education and then the 1964 Civil Rights Act.” Sadly, important as those governmental acts and subsequent housing-specific legislation were, they did little to ameliorate the situation at its most fundamental levels because the patterns of racial separation had already been firmly set in place by decades of government-imposed discriminatory policies.

So how do we ameliorate the situation? There are ways that gore no one’s ox and can make a big difference. I’ve suggested ones that can work very effectively right here in Wilton in columns this past summer — like taking advantage of the areas in our town’s recently adopted and excellently crafted POCD that are specifically reserved for more intensive development.

I’ve gotten some much-appreciated feedback from readers of those columns. Especially perceptive comments came from a friend with much experience in affordable housing matters who told me that the issue with affordable housing development is not local zoning restrictions so much as prohibitive land-acquisition costs that in towns like ours make affordable housing unachievable as a commercial reality.

I’ve checked that out with commercial developer contacts who tell me that far more significant than land acquisition costs as a constraint on affordable housing development in wealthy Connecticut towns is the intransigence of local zoning boards. While C.G.S. Sec. 8-30g affordable housing rules are designed to mitigate that local zoning impact, these developers tell me that the prospect of fights with town zoning boards followed by lengthy court litigation is the real constraint.

Whichever view on constraints is the right one (or maybe it’s a “both and”), there’s good reason for Wilton to be proactive. The alternative to “head-in-the-sand” inaction becomes state-forced action likely to be a lot less palatable to us, and the signs of that are already appearing in things like proposals for intermediate levels of Connecticut government between towns and the state that were recently offered up by the body that holds itself out as speaking for municipalities statewide.

If town-board “friendliness” is the real issue, that can be dealt with by encouraging developers to focus on those areas designated as highly suitable for congregate housing in the town’s POCD where presumably board resistance will be much lighter. By contrast, if land-acquisition costs are the real issue, why not think along the lines of the creation of Wilton Commons as senior-citizen affordable housing or the recent land trust acquisition of the beautiful 183 Ridgefield Road parcel for parkland development: public-private partnerships, this time for no-age-limit affordable housing. Wilton is expert at making public-private partnerships work in all sorts of different endeavors from our library to Ambler Farm.

Creative thinking on the public-private partnership front for affordable housing could start the process of putting Wilton once again at the forefront of showing how to get things done highly effectively locally.

Stephen Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.