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Future of CT Housing Nothing Like The Past

Future of CT Housing Nothing Like The Past

Source: Hugh Bailey, Hearst CT Media Editorial Page Editor

By Hugh Bailey, Hearst CT Media Editorial Page Editor

On Dec. 22, 1939, at the opening of the first public housing project in New England, the day’s featured speaker extolled the virtues of the newly constructed dwellings in contrast to the squalor they were helping replace. It was “not a promise,” he said, “but the beginning of a reality — fine, decent homes for about 5,000 people.”

The complex, known as Yellow Mill Village, was initially named for the adjacent waterway, but would later be rechristened in honor of that first day’s speaker, who had done so much to make it possible. As it degenerated over the years into one of the nation’s worst public housing projects, up until its eventual demolition in the 1990s, the housing had a name that became synonymous with everything wrong with our state’s declining cities — Father Panik Village.

A news story written in advance of its end in 1994 quoted several residents who mourned its decline. “It used to be beautiful here,” a 75-year-old said. “You could go downtown and leave your house unlocked and you wouldn’t have to worry about anything.”

It wasn’t beautiful at the end. Father Panik Village joined the ranks of other notorious public housing projects marred by chronic underfunding and rising crime, with one writer calling it “a miserable, wretched, broken-down pit of anger, pain and random violence.” 

It’s been gone for three decades, and yet Father Panik Village continues to haunt today’s housing discussions. Memories of long-demolished neighborhoods cloud the vision of what the state needs today. Everyone needs to be clear — nothing like that is in the works, nor is it in anyone’s plans.

What we could do, were we so inspired as a state, is get right what we’ve been getting wrong for so long. That means not building undersupported public housing, but allowing the construction of thousands of units of all kinds in every corner of the state to meet current needs and demands.

If trends hold at the state Capitol, that prospect is in doubt.

The introduction of a number of housing bills in the General Assembly and public testimony about those bills has revealed some familiar truths. For people who favor a serious overhaul in how we handle housing, the argument has been won, but it may not matter. People who want things to stay exactly as they are have lost the debate, but may well get what they want anyway.

It’s just easier to change nothing.

There are a lot of moving parts and different proposals, many of which would strengthen protection for renters. Landlords don’t like them, but given the trauma that evictions cause, it’s in the state’s interests to keep people in their homes and do more to guarantee livable conditions. Those bills should pass.

A dicier proposition is anything that would take on our massive shortfall of homes. The problem there is zoning, which is far too restrictive for what the state needs. Residents of rich towns treat their communities as private country clubs, where they can hoard opportunities that only accrue to the few while claiming they just work harder than everyone else, and so deserve a monopoly on all the benefits their towns grant to them. (They don’t.)

Asking nicely for towns to build isn’t going to work. Providing incentives they don’t want or need will accomplish nothing.

There is one bill before the General Assembly that would start to address the state’s longstanding housing needs, known as Fair Share, which would assess what the state is missing and what we need to do about it. Towns would be put on the spot to build, but the specifics would be decided locally.

The benefit of such a plan, which passed out of the Assembly’s Housing Committee on Thursday and now goes to the House floor, is that all the local officials who say they, and not the state, know best how to handle housing needs would get a chance to prove it. What they wouldn’t be able to do is simply say no to everything, or allow a token amount of housing and throw themselves a victory parade, as so often happens now.

Fair Share is not unprecedented, as it’s based on a similar New Jersey law. It’s not outside the norm, because New York state is looking at a huge housing push in its suburbs, with mandates and enforcement, with Massachusetts on a similar path.

Connecticut is the outlier. We continue to pretend that half-measures and wishing the problem away will accomplish something.

What we could really use is a governor who cares enough to make this a priority, someone who will make reluctant suburban lawmakers see things his way, regardless of their Steady Habits. And what was our actual governor doing as testimony was being offered about the biggest crisis our state is facing, one that threatens our economic future as well as denying people a right to shelter? Why, tweeting about a snowman-building contest, of course.

Maybe someday Connecticut will have a governor who takes seriously the needs of the state, who doesn’t think housing is something the cities can handle while the suburbs continue on their exclusionary way.

We’re not there yet.