Daniel Zhao

In early January, members of newly inaugurated Mayor Justin Elicker’s transition team released a 56-page report of recommendations for the mayor’s first 100 days in office. The transition team’s report touched on 10 “areas of concentration,” including the long-standing issue of access to safe and affordable housing in the city.

The transition plan — which consists of recommendations put together by Elicker’s transition team, not commitments made by the administration — lays out separate recommendations for the mayor’s first 100 days and two-year term in office, in addition to “longer term” goals for the city. The housing recommendations are multifaceted and take into account existing citywide conversations focusing on inclusionary zoning, investment in affordable housing and housing conditions in the city.

Why a “building boom” has not created more affordable housing

“New Haven is experiencing a building boom,” the report reads. “At the same time, healthy and affordable housing is in short supply.”

Affordable housing is officially defined by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development as housing that a household can obtain by spending 30 percent or less of its income. The issue in New Haven is one of supply and demand, according to a number of city housing experts.

Although New Haven has seen the addition of several thousand new rental units over the last decade, rents increase if there are more people looking for apartments than there are apartments available, explained Jonathan Hopkins ARC ’19, a member of the transition team who lives in New Haven and works as a city planner in Hartford. Generally speaking, New Haven’s newer units are market-rate rentals which landlords rent out at the highest rates tenants are willing to pay: “Far above what many long-term or lower-income residents can afford,” Hopkins said.

Mark Abraham, the executive director of DataHaven, a data analysis nonprofit in New Haven — who was not consulted on the transition report — said that for homeowners or those looking to buy homes in New Haven, costs have not changed dramatically relative to income. About 72 percent of the city’s housing stock, however, are rental units. Rental costs have been on the rise since the 1990s, Abraham said, at the same time as renters’ average incomes — once adjusted for inflation — are lower than they once were.

“Everyone is paying more rent,” he said.

The issue of renter income is especially pronounced in New Haven compared to most surrounding cities and towns. In fact, New Haven outperforms each of the 14 surrounding towns that make up the South Central Regional Council of Governments in terms of the percentage of its housing stock classified as affordable — clocking in at 32 percent. Of the council, only New Haven, West Haven and Meriden meet a 10 percent standard expectation set by the state, while some towns hover as low as around one percent. But housing classified as affordable is simply less affordable to the average renter in New Haven than to the average renter in the state overall.

According to DataHaven’s 2019 community index report, most New Haven renters are $17,000 short of being able to rent a two-bedroom apartment. When looking at Greater New Haven, which includes many of the city’s wealthier suburbs, that number goes down to $10,000; in Connecticut as a whole, it is $8,000. Ward 21 Alder Steven Winter ’11 noted that state funding for affordable housing has typically pegged affordable housing rates at the county median income, which is slightly less than double the median income in New Haven.

Recommendations and Hesitations

Transition plan recommendations for the first 100 days include issuing a “call to action” to create more affordable housing in both New Haven and surrounding towns, completing a “strategic study” of housing in the city, considering a fee on market-rate developments that do not include affordable housing, and supporting zoning policies that would require affordable units to be built wherever market-rate housing is.

The recommendations both follow and build upon existing conversations about affordable housing in the city, including the recommendations of the Affordable Housing Task Force released last January. One report goal is to staff the city’s Affordable Housing Commission in order to begin implementing the task force’s recommendations. The report was created with community input in the form of public meetings, survey responses and emailed suggestions.

Any changes to the city’s zoning ordinance — which has not been significantly overhauled since 1963 and has proven cumbersome in near-constant ways in recent years — would need to be legislated through the city’s Board of Alders.

In an interview with the News, Elicker said that there was “no one policy” that would “effectively move the dial on affordable housing.” Still, he noted that inclusionary zoning — strategies that would either require or incentivize developers building in the city to either create or fund affordable housing — was a priority.

“As the clock ticks, we have new market-rate housing appearing and are losing opportunities to require new developments to have percentages of affordable housing,” he said.

Elicker said that the city was working on looking into the impacts of various types of inclusionary zoning, including both “payment in lieu” structures — meaning that developers could choose to pay into a city fund rather than set aside affordable housing in their own developments — and a mandatory percentage requirement for developers.

When asked about another transition report goal — to increase diversity in New Haven’s neighborhoods — Elicker noted that desegregation was one argument for promoting a mandatory percentage requirement rather than a payment in lieu program. In the latter system, developers would have the discretion to make neighborhood-by-neighborhood choices about when to set aside affordable units in their own buildings.

Elicker said that in his first two weeks in office, he had discussions with department heads about how to pursue goals in the transition report. He also noted that three interns from the Harvard Kennedy School were working on “initial research” on inclusionary zoning with the City Plan Department.

Like Elicker, other city housing experts said that though inclusionary zoning is a priority, it is not a magic bullet — it alone cannot eliminate access issues to affordable housing.

Karen Dubois-Walton ’89, who worked on the housing recommendations and is the executive director of Elm City Communities, noted that other zoning suggestions in the report — such as reducing parking requirements or reassessing building requirements — could also increase access to affordable housing in the city.

Hopkins said that he was “not sure” that inclusionary zoning policy “will really get us where we want to be” on its own, suggesting that New Haven’s market was not strong enough to require more than a 10 or 15 percent investment in affordable housing from developers.

“We’re not Cambridge, we’re not Boston, we’re not San Francisco,” he said, citing cities with particularly strong and fast-growing demand.

Dubois-Walton said she resisted the assumption that the commercial market in New Haven was not strong enough to tolerate a percentage requirement from developers, noting that subsidies were available from organizations such as her own.

In response to the lower rates of affordable housing in surrounding towns, the transition plan also recommends that the administration support an increase in affordable units in New Haven’s surrounding towns, particularly those that make up the South Central Regional Council of Governments. Though the plan does not include specific numbers or percentages, Dubois-Walton said that Elm City Communities was advocating for an additional 7,500 units in the greater New Haven area, with 5,000 in New Haven proper — though she noted that this referred to all units set aside as affordable, not necessarily newly constructed buildings or apartments.

Longer-term housing policy recommendations also include pushing for a city ordinance that would require owners of limited liability companies, or LLCs, to be registered with contact information so as to increase landlord accountability. In October, alders and Livable City Initiative officials discussed how a loophole in state law allows landlords to hide behind LLCs and shirk code enforcement duties.

Health & housing: intimately intertwined

The transition plan lists health and housing recommendations together, underscoring a growing understanding of what experts call social determinants of health — one’s environmental conditions and circumstances, such as housing, that can have wide-ranging effects on health and well-being. Beyond accessibility and affordability, the transition report also emphasizes the safety and quality of housing.

One such issue is a call for improvement to the city’s policy and enforcement on lead.

Under former Mayor Toni Harp’s administration, the city’s health department faced public criticism and legal challenges for loosening the city’s standard for inspecting the homes of lead-poisoned children. Elicker himself made lead policy — and criticism of the Harp administration’s handling of it — a focus of his election campaign.

Maritza Bond, the city’s new health director — who began her job on Monday — said in an interview with the News after her appointment that lead would be her first priority upon taking office. Bond said that she would be evaluating policy and operation procedures within the health department before making concrete policy recommendations.

The report also recommends hiring more staff to improve code enforcement by the city’s Livable City Initiative and the creation of a Healthy Homes Coalition to focus on environmental health issues including but not limited to lead — other issues include asbestos and mold.

“We need to consolidate code enforcement across the city so that we have healthy homes, and not just for children but for everybody in the city,” said Alice Rosenthal, an attorney who runs the medical-legal partnership at Yale New Haven Hospital and who worked on the health and housing portion of the report.

Other health goals include addressing the opioid crisis in New Haven — which Bond said would be her second priority in office — and consolidating gun violence prevention efforts at City Hall.

The full health and housing portion of the transition report can be accessed on the city’s website.

 

Talia Soglin | talia.soglin@yale.edu