COLUMN: Affordable housing in downtown Meriden

COLUMN: Affordable housing in downtown Meriden


Meriden’s downtown revitalization is well underway, construction projects are everywhere. Next month the new Transit Center will be completed and State Street is slated to open for two-way traffic. The Record-Journal building is being demolished, making way for new apartments and townhouses. The Mills public housing project will commence demolition within a few months once the remaining tenants have been relocated and environmental testing has been completed.

The Mills project was built in the mid-1950s and was a “starter home” for many Meriden families who began families and eventually moved into single-family homes. Many of those residents have fond memories of those early days. But over the years, the public housing project became outdated physically and out of step with the more enlightened housing public policy of today (which favors mixed income levels where individuals and families of differing income levels share space).

The first downtown revitalization project was 24 Colony St., which opened last year and quickly filled to capacity demonstrating the need in our city, if not in our entire nation, for both affordable and market rate apartments. The Colony Street project is privately managed by Westmount Management and this company is currently considering the mix of retail/commercial tenants for occupation of the building’s ground floor. Interest is picking up as the Transit Center nears completion (it’s to be followed by the commuter rail service between New Haven, Hartford and Springfield).

The next mixed-use building, currently under construction, is Meriden Commons I, at the corner of State and Mill streets. It has 76 apartments and will be completed next year (it will also feature first floor retail/commercial space). Once Meriden Commons I is completed, Meriden Commons II will begin construction to the north with 75 more apartments. Also in 2018, the demolition of the Record-Journal building on Crown Street will make way for mixed use apartments and townhouses. The unique feature of all these new housing construction projects is that they are all mixed income, offering both market rate and subsidized (30 percent of gross income) privately managed apartments — a significant departure from the public housing projects of the past.

Some concern has been voiced about affordable housing projects:

One concern is that these residents may not have the discretionary income needed to sustain a viable and robust downtown. But, in fact, there is a wide range of incomes represented for those who will be living downtown. For the subsidized units, there is a cap of 30 percent of gross income meaning these residents will have 70 percent of their income available for non-housing costs. Furthermore, according to a recent study of discretionary spending by rental households, there is little difference between the discretionary spending of incomes between $50,000-$74,999 and $75,000-$99,999. This means that downtown renters will have significant discretionary income.

Another concern is the effect of affordable housing on property values. The Enterprise Foundation — along with the Habitat for Humanity — have studied the impact of affordable housing on communities and have found that affordable housing does not lower property values and has either a positive or no negative effect on nearby property values.

The bottom line is the housing market is shifting and communities that can offer a mix of apartments and homes at affordable levels will grow and prosper spurring economic development and the growth of the community’s grand list.

The age of the suburban McMansions is giving way to smaller homes and a move towards urban living. Millennials are looking for more modest rental housing near public transportation and urban amenities. Baby boomers are downsizing from large single-family homes to smaller houses and apartments.

Meriden is uniquely positioned to be responsive to the changing housing market due to its central location on the commuter rail line between the major labor markets of New Haven and Hartford with a quick twenty-minute commuter ride north or south. (Meriden is the only community on the line that is constructing the housing that the new housing market calls for.)

Meriden is in tune with the shifting housing market and the needs of millennials and baby boomers. We are moving in a forward-thinking direction with a vision and plan that will transform Meriden into a more vibrant city with a positive future.

It’s about time.

Michal S. Rohde is a former mayor and city councilor of Meriden.

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