State Sen. Will Haskell (opinion): I was lucky to grow up in Westport. More families should have that opportunity

A few years ago, my hometown of Westport was abuzz about a proposed multi-family residential development on the Post Road. The comments on social media were harsh and overwhelmingly negative.

“This is what East German housing would likely look like if it were built today,” one person lamented. Another suggested that, since renters don’t pay property taxes, they wouldn’t be as committed to the community as their home-owning neighbors. “It will be one giant traffic jam,” one person warned.

I live in that building now. There isn’t much traffic, and it certainly hasn’t turned Westport into East Berlin. I contribute to property taxes through my rent, and for the record, I’m very committed to our community. More than that, I live next to some great neighbors, whether they are educators who enjoy living in the same town in which they work or seniors who want to downsize while staying close to family. Many are under age 30 and working at local businesses that are desperate to recruit the next generation of employees.

This year in Hartford, the Planning and Development Committee has considered a host of zoning reforms to promote housing diversity. Some of these proposals are better than others, but sadly all of them have elicited an unwavering “no” from many of my colleagues.

There’s a dangerous idea that suburban towns suffer when more housing opportunities are built, but just the opposite is true.

As the youngest member of the legislature, I spend a lot of time worrying about our state’s brain drain. Connecticut is one of only three states that saw a population decline in each of the last six years, and too often, the young people who earn their degrees in Connecticut leave to become taxpayers elsewhere. While the reasons for that departure are multifaceted, housing is a major part of the equation. Connecticut ranks 49th in the country when it comes to building new housing units. Can we seriously expect young people to stick around in Connecticut if they can’t afford to live here?

Each zoning bill is still a work in progress, but it’s important that the debate in the weeks ahead focuses more on fact and less on fear-mongering. Establishing model zoning regulations would save towns money, should local authorities voluntarily choose to adopt them. Accessory dwelling units will increase housing opportunities without changing the look of any community. Why shouldn’t a homeowner be permitted to rent out their garage apartment or pool cottage? Replacing the word “character” with physical characteristics, defined by local officials, will ensure that zoning regulations are applied equitably and begin to rectify a long history of racial discrimination. A few hours of training for local planning and zoning commissioners shouldn’t be controversial given the complexity and importance of their work.

Nearly every day, I receive an email or a call from a constituent who believes that legislators in Hartford are trying to undermine everything that makes their town special. I can only think about the building where I live, and the controversy that it once inspired. I think about the school bus that stops outside in the morning and the next generation of children who have a chance to grow up in Westport. What makes our town special isn’t the dominance of single-family homes, but instead the humanity of our neighbors and the closeness of our community. Building more diverse housing stock will only make that community better and provide more children with the opportunities that I enjoyed.

Democratic state Sen. Will Haskell’s District 26 includes Redding, Ridgefield, Wilton, and parts of Bethel, Weston, Westport, and New Canaan.