Cities Guru Urges Focus On “High-Hanging Fruit”

David Blumenthal PhotoNew 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.”

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posted by: robn on June 26, 2014  4:09pm

New Haven does have the backyards, It just doesn’t have the schools; or more to the point, a large portion of the student body going to our schools is handicapped by poverty and lack of parental support.

posted by: Theodora on June 26, 2014  4:23pm

Robn… It is also handicapped by a district that harbors low expectations of certain students and creates a segregated system for the benefit of others.

posted by: Anika Singh Lemar on June 26, 2014  4:39pm


I think we agree.  As I discussed at some length in my talk on Tuesday morning, our region’s schools are highly segregated.  The predictable result is a large discrepancy in “school quality” between most of our suburban school districts and most of our urban schools.  A recent study by Brookings put the Hartford, Bridgeport, and New Haven regions at 1, 2 and 4 respectively when ranked by achievement gap and tied that gap to highly restrictive real estate development regulations (i.e. zoning). 

I put “school quality” in quotes because so long as our “best schools” are educating largely upper middle class white children and our “worst schools” are educating largely poor children of color, we are comparing apples to oranges.  We’re not talking about “good schools.”  We’re talking about “good (please note the quotation marks) demographics.”

We don’t have a public school system in Connecticut so much as we have public urban schools and a publicly-subsidized private school system in the suburbs. For data on the housing cost differentials in “good” and “bad” school districts see The problem is so bad that more than one white suburban parent has said to me, “We have great public schools in [insert name of suburban school district] but I sent my kids to Hopkins so that they’d have some diversity.”

posted by: alex on June 26, 2014  6:13pm

This is the kind of consciousness-raising and community outreach that law professors should be engaging in. Far too many of our New Haven Professoriat only speak to other academics and fail to do this kind of work.

Anika’s message is spot on—Connecticut’s failure to adopt a regional approach to economic development, and failure to prevent our economic development policies from working at cross purposes, are serious impediments to growth.

The only thing I’d add is that “outer-ring suburbs” are easy to blame as the problem but must be a part of the solution. The “high-hanging fruit” is to show the residents of those suburbs that the “benefits” they receive from our current approach are short-term at best and most likely illusory.

New Haven is very lucky to have Anika. Next week she joins the Yale Law School faculty: This is an incredible feat and it couldn’t go to a better person. Cheers!

posted by: robn on June 27, 2014  8:38am

We in New Haven have been arguing for decades about how to spend money and how much but in the end, what’s indisputable is that we’re operating on a budget bigger than our tax base can support (thus the stagnated to tepid growth of our city economy…we simply can’t attract outsiders in any significant numbers and the few that do come have been granted huge public subsidies).

We’ve also been arguing about whether or not to tax Yale and other institutions and I argue that we should stop arguing about that; the idea that these institutions provide a societal benefit has been enshrined in our state constitutions and is essentially baked into our society.

What we CAN do is demand that the cost of the societal benefit is shared by the entirety of the state; the same state that grants the tax free status. PILOT is a decades old flawed compromise arising from a then simmering movement for a lawsuit against the state. PILOT has subsequently been picked apart by vultures in the legislature (some from our own town) and has shown itself to be too weak. I’m convinced the city should turn its focus to a lawsuit against the state and assert that the state should reimburse all non-profit institutions for their property taxes. Its a cost the state created and its a cost the state should bear. If New Haven government doesn’t have the backbone to do it (I doubt this administration and this BOA does because they are in bed with the legislature’s desire for status quo), private citizens should.

posted by: alex on June 27, 2014  7:07pm

If, Robn, as you point out, PILOT is just a band-aid for an unjust system of municipal revenue in the state, a lawsuit isn’t going to solve the problem. The legislature is very much the obstacle to change. That’s why Toni Harp’s strategy of working with the Governor and the legislature actually makes sense, and the kneejerk opposition to her administration is counterproductive.

posted by: annegatling on June 27, 2014  11:24pm

this looks like it was a fantastic talk—congratulations anika on your new post, and being such a phenomenal resource for the city!  New Haven has extraordinary social capital—it’s a unique and desirable asset.  An engaged and innovative populace, of diverse ages and backgrounds (better than just having any one singular demographic….).  These are a distinguishing feature, and competitive advantage for the city—it should be more visible/communicated. Yea Anika!

posted by: robn on June 28, 2014  6:09am

USA Today’s annual state economy rankings.

“Connecticut, which comes in 46th, has the fourth-highest cost of doing business, the third-highest cost of living and the nation’s second-worst economy; only Alaska’s is worse.”

posted by: robn on June 29, 2014  7:34am


I wouldn’t call maintaining PILOT at a historic low “working” with the governor; I’d call it capitulation. Some, like ex-alderman Stratton, point out that a low PILOT was an intentional capitulation in order to divert other (smaller) funding to Harp, Walker and Looneys pet projects. Not a lot being said about this but the implications are outrageous.