Affordable housing and downtown revitalization go hand in hand.

Here’s how we know that’s the case: at The Community Builders (TCB), we envision a world with vibrant, safe, and inclusive neighborhoods, which is why our mission is to build and sustain strong communities where all people can thrive. As a nonprofit developer of affordable and mixed-income housing, we have created 31,712 homes across 14 states, developed 2.8 million sq. feet of commercial space and currently serve more than 25,000 residents across our communities. What we’ve learned in our 57 years of organizational experience is that affordable housing can be transformative – for both people and places.

Housing is considered to be affordable when residents are paying no more than 30% of their gross income toward housing related costs. This amount will vary depending on where you live, but ultimately affordable housing means that the rents are below the market value to ensure that housing is set aside for lower-income earners. This can be our teachers, firefighters, grocery store employees, retail employees, retirees, and any one of your neighbors. Here in Connecticut, the need for affordable housing has grown as rising housing costs have outpaced the increase in household income. At the same time our downtowns have struggled to revitalize.

Affordable housing and downtown revitalization go hand in hand:

Stable housing, stable communities –  Communities do best when people have housing stability. Among TCB properties, we’ve seen that 85% of residents are registered to vote, 83% of young adults are actively engaged in school or employment, and 79% feel they have enough finances at the end of each month.  When people can afford to live in the downtown, they fuel local businesses, depend less on vehicle transportation, instead opting for public transit, walking, or cycling. Quality of life increases for residents as they have close access to jobs and amenities, and downtown businesses benefit from increased density and greater activity at all times of day.

Our West Village Apartments in downtown New Haven has given 127 individuals, many formerly homeless, an opportunity for stable housing in proximity to local buses, YMCA services, and easy access to a range of employment opportunities. The result has been a cornerstone project of the Chapel West District that coexists and contributes to an active commercial corridor of restaurants, independent shops, and cultural institutions.

Affordable housing as a catalyst for change Affordable housing developers will often go where the traditional market will not, taking on the projects that have been long overlooked by other commercial developers. Connecticut’s downtowns often have challenging sites – an old mill, an aging commercial district, a shopping center no longer in use – that we can all envision as vibrant mixed-use development. But perhaps these sites have been overlooked due to historic contamination, low-market rents, or significant capital needs. Affordable housing developers, especially mission-driven nonprofits like TCB, often have access and a willingness to utilize a variety of complex state and federal programs, such as federal low-income housing tax credits, brownfield funding, historic tax credits, and energy efficiency programs.

Being able to leverage these other sources in exchange for providing housing for low-income renters, makes the bottom line easier to meet, while creating opportunities and expanding offerings for the broader community.

Housing is a long-term investment The economic benefits to communities cannot be overlooked. For the difficult-to-develop projects as mentioned above, downtowns have the opportunity to leverage significant funding from state and federal sources for the local community, putting underutilized properties back on the tax rolls.

Affordable housing today is also subject to much more stringent oversight of management and maintenance practices, ensuring that properties are well-maintained and remain under good ownership. Often this work is done in partnership with other local organizations, where there is a shared mission and vision for the future of your community.

Have a site in mind but don’t know where to start? Here are a few considerations for your local community to bring in equitable, affordable housing as an investment in the downtown.

  • Affordable housing plans and appropriate zoning is critical – Legal costs and lengthy lawsuits can make any project infeasible. With a renewed focus on zoning reform in Connecticut right now, towns have an opportunity to be proactive in identifying opportunities for affordable housing development in their districts. Consider how your town’s Plan of Conservation and Development helps encourage multifamily housing in the downtown districts.
  • Collaborate with developers – Federal and State agencies want to support local town priorities. Collaborating with developers to show that support – through advocacy, funding, or other commitments – demonstrates to funders that communities believe in the project benefits. A little can go a long way, as was the case with TCB’s Kensington Square development, which was able to leverage $30 million in funding with just a commitment of 1.5% of the project funded through City HOME Funds. Phone calls to legislators, tax abatement, or donations of land are all examples of how towns can be creative in bringing in catalytic investment.
  • Remember, there is no perfect projectTransformation takes time, political will, community vision and flexibility. While affordable housing development has the potential to advance many goals at once – whether that is adaptive reuse, addition of mixed-use properties, or historic or energy efficient upgrades – no one project can achieve every goal.

Communities that have a long-term vision for their downtown districts are key to navigating the many benefits and opportunities that this type of development can offer. And every downtown can benefit from affordable housing – because when people thrive, communities thrive.

About the Author

Kristin Anderson is a Development Project Manager for The Community Builders (TCB). Since 1964, TCB has constructed or preserved hundreds of affordable and mixed-income housing developments and pioneered the Community Life (CL) model for resident success. As a CT resident, Kristin’s work for the organization is primarily based in Connecticut, where TCB has communities in New Haven, Hartford, Torrington, and Vernon.