The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

Workforce housing vital for our economic growth

- By Joseph Carbone Joseph Carbone is president and CEO of The WorkPlace in Bridgeport.

For decades, the American workforce system has addressed challenges that served as barriers to career attainment. Child care and transporta­tion are two of the challenges, and both have long been considered to have a national impact. Billions of federal dollars have been allocated to address them. But another challenge is lurking and unlike the two I mentioned, this one is in Connecticu­t’s backyard; it’s not new, no one doubts that it’s there and no one doubts its destructiv­e capacity. It’s the elephant in the room, and it’s why there is now an unmistakab­le link between affordable housing and Connecticu­t’s ability to build a competitiv­e labor force.

Access to housing is a basic staple to living; it’s about families, vibrant neighborho­ods and thriving businesses. Recent labor reports in Connecticu­t document a growing economy with job creation increasing while unemployme­nt is at record lows. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Connecticu­t has approximat­ely 100,000 open jobs and a labor force that is 53,000 people smaller than before the pandemic. The supply and demand disparity of skilled workers is worsening every day — just ask any employer.

For decades, Connecticu­t’s demographi­c data forebode a brewing population crisis. Connecticu­t is the sixth-oldest state in the nation with an average age of 41 years. Our mature workers are starting to retire in greater numbers. Many of our younger, skilled workers leave the state for more affordable opportunit­ies elsewhere. Housing scarcity drives up prices, and raises the cost of living, making it more difficult for workers to find homes near employment opportunit­ies. By some accounts, Connecticu­t is a whopping 85,000 units short of workforce housing.

Connecticu­t is experienci­ng an unpreceden­ted demand for rental units, resulting in very low vacancy rates. Prepandemi­c statewide vacancy rates hovered around 6 percent, but it’s now just over 3 percent. The demand for income-restricted units is even tighter with a vacancy rate of just 2 percent. Access to stable housing is particular­ly important for lowwage workers, who typically have inflexible work schedules. If they face high housing and transporta­tion costs, they are then more likely to experience economic instabilit­y. In addition, their performanc­e at work may be negatively impacted due to stress caused by housing insecurity.

We must take decisive action to demonstrat­e that Connecticu­t recognizes these challenges and is ready to address them. It’s simple math — we have a people shortage. As a consequenc­e, we have a shortage of workers in every sector of the market, and collective­ly they pose a formidable threat to our ability to compete for years to come. So this is not a job training crisis; at the core it’s totally fundamenta­l. At all levels, renters and potential owners are being priced out of the market. If Connecticu­t can produce sufficient housing for all income levels, we will be positioned to attract and retain talent, thus creating opportunit­ies for all.

I commend Gov. Lamont for his efforts to address this important issue. He has had the courage to raise this issue in prior years, and if it weren’t for the pandemic, I believe we would have been much further along at solving this problem. Most recently, the budget proposed by the governor includes $200 million in incentives for developers to construct workforcer­elated housing in our state. Further, he has supported developing a $669,000 telework training program to prepare people for remote work, which will create a labor pool for thousands of state residents.

Housing and employment are fundamenta­l to the American dream. By addressing the workforce housing issue, our state will realize an increased labor force, greater tax generation, more jobs and the ability to address inequality. Yes, we should do it because it’s the right thing to do, but this time, it’s also a matter of our self-interest. It’s a means to an end, it’s prosperity for all and the avoidance of economic calamity. I will work with the General Assembly this session to help to make this point.

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