Submitted by State Senator Alex Kasser (D-36)
Recently I’ve received a deluge of emails regarding some proposed bills in Hartford. I’ve been responding to these inquiries for months in a clear and consistent manner, but for those who still question my position, here it is again: I oppose taking away local control of zoning (SB1024) and I oppose a “mansion” tax (SB171). These are two bills out of thousands and in my opinion, neither will become law. Yet there’s a tremendous amount of outrage and media coverage about the zoning bill in particular. Why? Because Republicans are making it a lightning rod issue to stir fear and create anxiety. We’ve seen this strategy before on a host of other issues.
But there are lessons to be learned from these bills and I want to take a moment to discuss them. Sometimes change is hard, but that’s not an excuse for inertia. This is what we’re seeing on the zoning and affordable housing issue. SB1024 sends a clear message to towns that if they continue to reject affordable housing options, then the state will step in. Does the Greenwich Housing Authority do a good job? Yes it does. Could Greenwich do more? Yes it could. Despite the fear-mongering, the facts are that building more affordable housing is GOOD for our community. If done well, new mixed-income housing actually increases property values and increases revenue for the Town. Affordable housing can take the form of beautiful new buildings along the Post Road or near a train station. Look at Westport. Mixed-use and mixed-income housing enhance the appeal of a town and benefit everyone.
Has Greenwich kept up with other towns in developing affordable and mixed-income housing? Unfortunately, it has not. Greenwich lags behind. About 30 years ago, New Canaan created an Affordable Housing Fund and imposed a tax on themselves to pay for it. They felt it was their civic duty to provide affordable housing options and not rely solely on state or federal funding. Kudos to New Canaan.
Other towns have ordinances that require new multi-unit developments to include 20% affordable units. Drive along the Post Road in Westport and admire the results. Those condos house young professionals, senior citizens, and working families. They absolutely improve the appeal and the economy of Westport. They open the door to first-time buyers who put down roots and will eventually buy a larger home in that town. Smart development is smart economic strategy. It generates local revenue – with more residents who shop locally and pay town taxes. And it enhances property values for everyone.
I encourage you to drive down the Post Road in Greenwich, from end to end, and look with fresh eyes, as though you were visiting for the first time. You might be surprised to notice abandoned properties. There have been efforts to develop some of these sites into various forms of housing but somehow those proposals are always rejected. “Not in my back yard!” is the reason. But why not? I’d prefer to have new units with lovely neighbors at the end of my block rather than an abandoned building overgrown with weeds. (In fact, I used to live near just such a property on the western side of Greenwich, and 20 year later, it’s still there.)
Developments that include both market-rate and affordable units, such as those in Westport, make the town more attractive, more modern and INCREASE property values for everyone. I know that Desegregate CT has framed this issue in terms of racism, but if you peel back the layers, this is really about economic opportunity and creating value for everyone. We are all better off when teachers, firefighters and small business owners can afford to live in our community. We are all better off when new residents of all backgrounds and income levels can move here. By adapting our housing policies, Greenwich can become even more appealing and dynamic than it already is.
Greenwich has not yet passed an ordinance like Westport’s, nor has it created an Affordable Housing Fund. Whatever the reasons may be, the fact is that Greenwich has work to do. I believe it is our civic responsibility and also an economic imperative to change this and I hope the Town makes every effort to do so. Avoiding the issue, while feigning outrage and stirring fear, is not a responsible reaction. And, frankly, that kind of reaction is precisely what leads others to suggest that local zoning policies are racist. Housing is not an “us” versus “them” issue. I hope that Greenwich officials stop fear-mongering and start leading by example. I hope they demonstrate their commitment to change by adopting policies that generate new development. Then the state won’t have to step in. We are all better off when we confront problems with solutions. And when we accept that change is needed. That’s my vision and I hope others share it too.