Sen. Somers: An untapped idea to help ease Connecticut’s housing crunch

January 30, 2023

Electric Boat interested in building housing to attract workers

By Alexander Soule

CT Insider


Jan. 30, 2023

The rack space is free — if cramped — for the submariners aboard the subs built by Electric Boat in Groton, which is on a sustained hiring push to keep up with Navy orders.

Could Electric Boat dangle quality housing to prospective employees as an extra hiring perk, by building apartments itself in southeast Connecticut?

State officials floated the possibility last week — and suggest it is an untapped idea to help ease Connecticut’s housing crunch that has contributed to soaring rents.

Speaking Thursday during a meeting of the Executive and Legislative Nominations Committee of the Connecticut General Assembly, state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said that Electric Boat managers had expressed interest in the idea during a recent meeting.

Somers noted that employers elsewhere are building apartment communities for their workers, whether in high-price areas like California and Florida or in cases where employers have too-few quality options near large facilities in more remote areas.

“They’re for it,” Somers said Thursday of her recent conversations with Electric Boat on the topic. “They might have to get into the real estate business.”

Alexandra Daum, the choice of Gov. Ned Lamont to lead the Connecticut Department of Economic & Community Development, said during the Thursday hearing she got the same feedback during a recent visit to Electric Boat.

“Electric Boat is engaged in discussions with the state to explore options to increase the stock of available and affordable housing in Southeastern Connecticut,” stated Electric Boat spokesperson Dan McFadden, in an email response Friday to a CT Insider query on any prospect for company-built apartments. “The company has no plans at this time to build employee housing. It is too early to say how such a project would be structured.”

Both Lamont and leaders in both parties in the Connecticut General Assembly have cited the high cost of housing in Connecticut as the biggest obstacle for employers to seal the deal with job offers, the result both of a limited and aging supply and Connecticut municipalities’ reliance on property taxes to fund the majority of their costs for schools and services.

In the first three weeks of the current session of the Connecticut General Assembly, more than 70 bills have been introduced focused on affordable housing, none focused on incentives for employers to build or offer housing.

Daum told legislators on Thursday she supports the concept of employer-sponsored housing and referenced her prior experience working for Trammell Crow Residential, which is in the midst of a $1.5 billion build-out of what it calls “attainable” apartments in across several states under the Allora brand, for renters making above 80 percent of the median income in their region.

In the past, the National Association of Realtors has promoted the idea of incentives for “employer-assisted housing” as a way to broaden the options for workers on limited budgets. But building new complexes is a risky endeavor compared to stipends to cover the cost of housing, particularly in the context of many corporations choosing to lease corporate facilities, vehicles and equipment where possible, to lessen the long-term financial burden of maintaining ownership themselves.

If employer-owned housing is part of the American residential landscape at resorts, colleges, farms and military bases, it is an artifact of American industrial history as well. Examples included the General Electric Realty Plot and Kodak Employees Realty Corp. of the early 20th century in upstate New York, and Hershey construction in its namesake Pennsylvania town; to isolated examples into the present day at large corporations.

Connecticut has its own limited history in corporate housing developments, including in the village of Georgetown at the crossroads of Redding, Ridgefield, Weston and Wilton, where the corporation that owned the Gilbert & Bennett wire mill built houses in the 19th century for both blue-collar workers and managers to live in the same community.

Facebook parent Meta has one of the most ambitious projects underway on the books today, in Menlo Park, Calif., where it wants to replace an industrial property with Willow Village. The development would include housing for nearly 9,000 people with a town square, pocket parks, a grocery store, shops and restaurants. Willow Village currently lists only 18 percent of its planned units as “affordable” however, and anyone could apply for a lease though Meta employees are expected to lease a majority of the units.

Last summer outside Syracuse, N.Y., Turning Stone Resort Casino opened a new apartment community for its workers. And months beforehand, April, Walt Disney announced plans to build a village that would help cast members and other employees afford to live near its theme parks in Orlando, Fla.

A spokesperson for ESPN, which Disney owns with a minority share held by Hearst Corp., said the broadcaster has not offered housing to its Bristol-area employees in the past, but “would be happy to hear” about any Connecticut plan for employer-based housing incentives, in his words.

Electric Boat employees spoke up themselves as part of a study of housing challenges and opportunities commissioned by the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments in conjunction with SUBASE New London.

The consensus among nearly 2,000 employees who participated in the study?

Newly constructed housing would be preferred, with four of every 10 new employees preferring to rent rather than own.

“Most employees would not consider more than $1,500 per month an affordable housing cost,” the report’s authors stated. “Younger employees … are significantly more interested in walking and biking to work.”