For decades, Connecticut suffered from sluggish economic growth and the resulting fiscal problems. The causes, it is said, are diverse: an aging population, the absence of a home town, emigration to other states and, of course, excessive regulation. Over the past decade we’ve had some real-world experience on the causes and, it turns out, over-regulation is the prime suspect. However, the culprit is a specific type of regulation: zoning.
The results of the experiment came in the 2020 census. Connecticut‘s population grew a meager 0.9 percent from 2010, about 32,000 people, 46and among the states. If you think that’s a feature of the New England states, think of our neighbors. Massachusetts grew 7.4% and a whopping 482,000 people, 15 times our population growth, and even Rhode Island, with less than a third of our population, added more people, 44,000, and at a much higher rate, 4.4%. Additionally, most of this growth has occurred outside of Boston and Providence.
These population changes are a direct result of the increase in each state’s housing stock, which is the best way to measure the overall impact of zoning policy. If zoning in most cities suppresses housing construction, the housing stock will not increase much, regardless of demand. In Massachusetts, where the state has long overseen local zoning much more actively than in Connecticut, the housing stock grew by 6.8%, or more than 200,000 units. In Rhode Island, the housing stock increased by 4.3%. But in Connecticut, it only rose 2.8%.
A city-by-city examination of census data further demonstrates the link between population growth, housing construction, and zoning. Nearly 100% of Connecticut’s population growth was concentrated in four municipalities—Stamford, Norwalk, Danbury, and New Haven—and there was no overall change in the rest of the state. Unsurprisingly, these four municipalities account for a third of all new housing.
Housing is built where there is demand and zoning that allows it to be built on a large scale. It is not built, whatever the demand, where zoning makes it impossible or almost impossible to build. There is intense demand to live in our affluent suburbs – just look at their property prices – but the housing stock there has barely budged. In some, it has even decreased. The flat supply is the telltale sign that zoning in most Connecticut towns is suppressing housing development, despite the high-profile construction of a project here or there.
Stamford, where I live and work, demonstrates the impact of more people living in more homes. We’ve added 6,500 homes and 13,000 people from 2010 to 2020, a big chunk of all the growth in the state. We have a more vibrant downtown, more services like new restaurants and food markets, and a larger labor pool for area businesses.
It’s no coincidence that nearly every new major employer in the state has chosen to locate in Stamford. Additionally, this growth has had a positive fiscal impact, which I know well as chair of our finance council since 2015. Like the state, Stamford has had greatly increased pension obligations, and we have been able to increase funding pensions while maintaining tax increases. because, unlike the state, we could spread the impact over more people occupying more taxable real estate.
It is not a viable state economic policy to confine all growth to a few municipalities, and that is the goal of Fair Share. Individual decisions by most cities to stifle housing growth are doomed to failure; it’s suffocating the whole state. Fair Share creates a system that forces cities to rezone for new housing construction at the scale of hundreds or thousands of units, not dozens per year. It gives cities the freedom and control to determine where and at what density these units will be built. Fair Share has worked effectively in New Jersey since the 1970s and the 8-30g moratorium provisions are proof that cities will rezone themselves to allow new multi-family housing, if given the imperative to do.
Fair sharing works. Economic stagnation in Connecticut is, and always has been, by choice. Let’s choose another path.
Richard Freedman is chairman of Garden Homes Management, a family-owned real estate company based in Stamford, and chairman of the Stamford Board of Finance. Garden Homes owns and has developed many affordable housing projects throughout Connecticut.