New Haven needs to tackle the rising cost of housing, and work with suburban towns as a region to compete with other regions in the country.
Anika Singh Lemar (pictured) delivered that message to 30 or so attendees Tuesday morning at a monthly Greater New Haven Community Loan Fund (GNHCLF) Community Breakfast, held at Gateway Community College’s Cafe Vincenzo.
The talk revolved around Lemar’s diagnoses for the City of New Haven, as well as her previous work as a founding member and later a board member for the urban policy journal Next City.
Lemar, a clinical associate professor at Yale Law School, said her love for cities inspired her to help found the ideas policy journal in 2003, when, she said, “the debate on cities was very much a partisan one and not really a formative one.”
After a brief summary of the journal’s history, she got down to business: how to make Greater New Haven more attractive to “local and statewide economic development” and to offset the risks that come with an aging population. Lemar exhorted her audience to focus on housing, school and jobs, “the high-hanging fruit.” If New Haven and its regional surroundings excel here, she said, it will bring the region greater economic development and further prosperity.
Greater New Haven: A Work in Progress
The underlying challenge for New Haven, Lemar said, is that “Connecticut is a place people have always moved to for backyards and schools,” noting that New Haven is not famous in either regard. On the other hand, she noted, New Haven has social capital—organizations like The Group with No Name, the Democracy School, and the Under 91 Project.
“People who have a choice will choose these things,” she said. “Again, people who have a choice.”
The rising cost of housing can limit that choice, she said. Close to 42 percent of New Haven renters pay more than 30 percent of their income for rent. The year-over-year increase in average monthly rent is 2.1 percent.
And those who are not forced out by gentrification do not necessarily benefit from an increased tax base, either, when it comes to education. Lemar said that, even in New Haven, “drawing school district lines a certain way” can restrict opportunities only to some when it comes to education.
“Housing costs are about two and a half times higher in districts where there are good schools,” she said.
From Challenges to Solutions
Lemar cited diversity as the primary feature of a successful school. She praised New Haven’s successful effort to modify teacher contracts in order to test school-reform ideas.
She said she see less hope for housing: New Haven shares in a “nationwide housing problem,” Lemar said. “We need more of it, and we need to put more people in it.”
Expansion of public housing in Greater New Haven has encountered stiff resistance. Most recently, Milford lawmakers successfully fought for a one-year moratorium on affordable housing developments in the city, where affordable housing makes up 6 percent of properties. Lemar called these sorts of efforts decidedly ruinous to the future of regional economic development.
Lemar said cities need to “incentivize an IMBY” (in my backyard) mentality as opposed to a NIMBY (not in my backyard) mentality.
The proverbial elephant in the room remains Connecticut’s aging population. Lemar displayed two top ten lists to illustrate the underlying challenge New Haven faces. The New Haven-Hartford area does not appear on the list of top ten cities where the country’s 80 million milennials, those born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, are moving. (Austin tops the list.) It is, however, No.4 on the list of where so-called “boomers” are living, those born after World War II between 1946 and 1964. (Portland-Auburn, Maine, tops that one.)
“Working As A Team”
In discussion that followed Lemar’s presentation, GNHCLF board president C. Michael Tucker (pictured) said he was trying to figure out how the suburbs’ exclusionary zoning problem had become so exacerbated.
Lemar said that, looking at the situation from an economist’s perspective, the “ritual” nature of neighborhoods and how they operate had made people more “risk-averse” about new developments. Lemar added that Connecticut’s 169-town governing structure can exacerbate disparities in wealth in a way that states with a county governing structure don’t have to deal with.
“The story is one of outer-ring towns taking advantage of transportation and infrastructure and major employers in the city and what-not without bearing a share of the cost,” she said. “What they don’t realize is that nobody else does it this way. It’s crazy.”
Bill Purcell of the Valley Chamber of Commerce asked about Connecticut’s decision to raise the hourly minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017.
Lemar said she didn’t have the expertise as a labor economist to declare what the effect would be in Seattle (which is moving to $15 an hour), but said that the conversation over the minimum wage “shows where our city has come over the last decade.”
“Twenty years ago, we wouldn’t have had that conversation,” she said. “The desire for jobs was overwhelming.”
The underlying message, Lemar said, is that New Haven needs to keep its eye on a regional focus.
“New Haven is not competing with Milford. New Haven-Milford is competing with Austin and New York-Boston is competing with L.A.-San Francisco” she said. “We need to start working as a team on some of these issues and right now we’re not.”