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CT Housing Policy: If Not Racist In Intent, Racist In Impact

The interior of a historic property on Laurel Street - my condo has not appreciated in value, though.

The interior of a historic property on Laurel Street – my condo has not appreciated in value, though.

Gov. Dan Malloy took unnecessary heat for saying if a policy is not racist in intent, it is racist in impact.

While Republicans attacked Malloy’s rhetoric as applied to drug free school zones, Malloy’s analysis paralleled Sheff v. O’Neill’s driving idea of de jure v. de facto segregation.

Malloy’s “racist in impact” framing must be applied to as many unfair realities in Connecticut cities that we can attach it to, from education policy to housing policy.

This week, I want to focus on how flat property values in cities are a reflection of this “if not racist in intent, racist in impact” framework.

Let’s start with the basic numbers. Connecticut has 3.6 million people. About 2.52 million people are white, according to rough U.S. Census Bureau counts. That leaves about 400,000, or 11 percent, black residents and about 525,000 (15 percent) Latino citizens.

Less than one million people – not even a third – live in Connecticut’s major cities. New Haven, Hartford, New Britain, Waterbury, Danbury, and Bridgeport have 800,000 residents combined.

And those who do live in the cities live in a different place than suburban white Connecticut Hartford has 30 percent whites, 39 percent blacks and 43 percent Latino.

The small size of Connecticut’s cities, combined with the racial imbalance, means our cities limited power. By the numbers, the white population runs the state, and this skews the experience for the non-white population.

Statewide, the Census says only 10 percent of the state lives below the poverty level, and 68 percent of the people own homes in Connecticut.

Again, Hartford does not reflect these numbers. Hartford has a 34 percent poverty rate with 25 percent home ownership rate.

Clearly, forces larger than the cities themselves control their destiny. The Connecticut legislature is weighted towards the suburbs. We have never had a non-white Speaker of the House, and I can’t see when we will get one.

In some people’s worldview, if there is racism, it does not impact policy making. This appears to the philosophy of Rep. Themis Klarides of Derby, the head of the Republican caucus in the Connecticut General Assembly’s House of Representatives.

She threw a giant baby fit after Malloy’s racist in impact statement. But Rep. Klarides lives in a special Republican bubble. The Census bureau considers her Derby a city, albeit one with 13,000 inhabitants, 75 percent of whom are white, 7 percent black and 14 percent Latino.

Derby enjoys a 56 percent home ownership rate and a 13 percent poverty level. Clearly, her version of “city” is more along the lines of the rest of white Connecticut.

With such high home ownership rates, it is a safe bet that Derby has seen its houses prices continue to appreciate during the past 40 years.

In Hartford, most residential properties have not seen their home values rise in decades. A woman in Baltimore lamented recently how the house she bought in 1977 is worth only $500.00 more than she paid for it.

Her analysis of the financial trends leading her to be in a losing proposition as a property owner in a city struck a chord.

And I said, hey, wait a second: my condo that I purchased in 2002 here in Hartford on Laurel Street is in the same boat. I paid $25,500.00 for it, and it may be worth less than what I bought it for.

If I take a comparable – my third floor neighbor in the same building on Laurel Street, she bought for $30,000.00 in 2011 and sold for $25,000 last year.

Extrapolate this across the city of Hartford, and we have a major problem, caused by forces much larger than this city’s administration, with no one proposing solutions.

The financial system in America ties much of your personal financial worth in your home. When you pay down your mortgage, you build equity, and hopefully, your investment in your house pays dividends in the form of property appreciation.

Yet in the cities, this flatlining of property values dooms us.

The condo unit I am a part of on Laurel Street is an 1890 Victorian on the National Register of Historic Places. Inside, it is gorgeous – an amazing rounded wood staircase, 10-foot ceilings, original stained glass and woodwork, including oak moldings, pine floors, oak fireplaces and pocket doors.

Yet if the house burned down, it would cost far more to rebuild the edifice than it is worth.

How is this possible? Governmental policy.

“The role of federal and state government in creating and maintaining residential racial segregation must be understood, without excuse, as a reality of American history,” wrote Marc Seitles in his comment “The Perpetuation of Residential Racial Segregation in America: Historical Discrimination, Modern Forms of Exclusion and Inclusionary Remedies”, published in The Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law in 1996.

While Seitles’ comment delves deeply into these issues, from redlining to steering to discrimination to segregation, I want to focus on flat property values as a function and a racist in impact result.

In places like Avon, Litchfield, Guilford and Trumbull, people who can afford to buy into the home market expect their investment to build more than just equity. They expect their home to grow in value.

For example, in 1971, my parents purchased a house in Watertown for like $35,000.00. Today, that house is worth more than $250,000.00. Their nest egg quite literally is their nest. When they put in a new dishwasher or bathroom, they know they will get their money back.

Here in Hartford, I have lost money as a homeowner. All of the maintenance dollars poured into my condo unit on Laurel Street, from installing a new bathroom (with a dual-flush toilet to reduce water use) to installing new windows and refinishing the floors and fresh coats of paint on the wall has had no impact on my unit’s value.

This is to say nothing of the tens of thousands the Condominium Association has done in exterior/common area work – a new roof, rebuilt chimney, repaired sewer pipe and so on.

Limited financial incentive entices an investor (or homeowner) to purchase a property when the land itself does not improve in value. This explains the unique colonialism of landlords in Hartford.

Out of town investors come in, buy up dilapidated property, put the minimum in, and extract what profit they can from the building. This leaves the housing stock in worse condition.

This problem of attract investment into a dead economic zone vexes politicians and they fail to articulate the issue. The North End Promise Zone does not come close to fixing the problem.

Wags have long expressed that no investment can happen in Hartford without major public subsidies. This depreciation of property values in part explains this (although there are many other reasons).

Subsidies are one policy that can address this issue of racist in impact housing laws. Unfortunately, as subsidies are used today in Hartford, they have overwhelmingly tended to favor the winners society has already chosen – the Josh Solomons and the Downtown Dwellers who already have money.

While Section 8 is a subsidy for people, administration, with tactics like steering, can manipulate who it benefits. Where do beleaguered homeowners in Hartford find help?

Unfortunately, since well more than 70 percent of the people in Connecticut do not experience this lack of home value appreciation, they will not to address it in the legislature or through elections. Nor do we have a mayor or other elected representatives who seem interested in this issue.

Five or six policy choices can help change this. Seitles detailed mandatory set asides, affordable housing appeals, statewide inclusionary housing objectives through planning statutes, inclusionary zoning programs, and mobility programs.

To that we should add property tax reform, regionalism and the abolition of town lines. A just society requires that we confront the “if not racist in intent, racist in impact” governance oppressing our cities.

 

Edited for clarity and removal of errors 2015-06-07

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