When Jeff Sattler, executive director of the new Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance, moved to Connecticut a few months ago, he immediately saw the need for higher-density housing in the state’s cities and towns.

And when he asked town officials why there was such a shortage, he heard the same answer, over and over.

“School costs were the first thing I heard [about] when I got here from Baltimore,” he said.

For years, the leaders of many of southeastern Connecticut’s cities and towns – and of numerous other communities all across New England – have blocked dense zoning, instead favoring 2-acre minimum-lot sizes and single-family homes. One of the most common reasons given for such actions is school costs: the belief that dense housing will attract more families, and therefore more school-age children, and that those municipalities’ budgets will be strained with the extra cost of educating more children.

Sattler said he listened, but questioned the sentiment. He wondered: Has there ever been a study that proved that allowing dense housing development attracted more families with school-age children? He did not find one. But he went further than that and, along with Deborah Donovan, director of marketing of the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, did a study that compared the density of housing with the number of households that have children in schools.

Sattler said he found the resulting statistics to be shocking.

The study shows that some of the cities and towns with the lowest percentage of single-family homes, such as New London and Norwich, have the lowest percentage of children in public schools.

“The numbers, by and large, show that the municipalities with the highest percentage of higher density of affordable housing actually have the higher percentage of households without children, while a majority of the communities with a greater percentage of single-family detached housing have the higher percentage of households with children,” according to a summary.

New London, probably the most densely populated municipality studied, had the highest number of households without children. More than 70 percent of households there do not have children, and there is an average of 0.34 children in public school per household.

The town with the highest percentage of households with children – Salem – has a significantly higher percentage of single-family homes. Seventy-seven percent of the units there are single-family homes. There is an average of 0.56 children in public school per household.

The trend is not hard and fast. Waterford, which has a housing stock that is 88 percent single-family homes, has the third-highest percentage of homes with no children. Eighteen municipalities were included in the study.

But Norwich, which has a housing stock made up of 45 percent single-family homes, also has a relatively high percentage of homes with no children: more than 67 percent.

Affordability Problem

Sattler said he hopes the study will help put to rest the notion that dense housing means increased school costs. School costs should be a concern, but should be kept in perspective, he said, and should not be an excuse to allow more “McMansions” on 2-acre lots in lieu of denser development that would be affordable to people with middle incomes.

Other studies have had similar findings. An Urban Land Institute study showed that there is an average of 64 children in 100 units of non-dense development, but 19 children in 100 units of a high-rise, Sattler said.

Other studies have had similar findings, according to David Fink, policy and communications director for the Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities. But they have not always had an impact on local governments’ decisions.

“Towns tend to operate in the exact opposite way,” he said.

Many studies have found that, unless a development includes many units with three bedrooms, they tend not to attract families with school-age children.

“The towns have been fearing something that should not be feared,” Fink said.

Sattler, who relocated to work in Connecticut only three months ago, said he hopes to communicate the importance of affordable housing to the cities and towns in southeastern Connecticut.

“Part of the issue is to increase supply,” he said.

But to do that, towns must agree to increase the density per acre. It makes building the properties more affordable, thereby passing on affordable housing to those who need it.

Sattler will be presenting the results of the study to the Southeastern Connecticut Coalition of Governments.

“Regionally, the whole area sinks or swims together,” he noted.

He expressed hope that his group will help communities that are making decisions based on myth rather than on fact.

“We see ourselves as a resource to the towns,” Sattler said.

Sattler acknowledged that there are municipal governments that would like to stop any influx of schoolchildren, and that would rather stop development altogether. But he pointed out that most towns in the area rely on volunteer fire departments, and if firefighters are priced out of the market, those towns will have a problem.

That problem could extend to the people who run the town governments themselves. If planner, secretaries and other professionals who run a town hall cannot afford a home in the area, that will create another set of problems.

“What happens if the towns themselves can’t get people to run them?” Sattler said.

Most people in southeastern Connecticut believe the area’s lack of affordable housing does not affect them, but they are wrong, Sattler said.

He added that he hopes to redefine people’s notions of dense development. Most people find places like Mystic and Stonington lovely, but do not realize that their downtowns are examples of dense development.

Fink has traveled to communities across the state and has spoken with more than 50 town executives. Many of them have complaints that stem from a lack of affordable housing. They say they cannot find workers, and they are hearing from baby boomers that their grown children cannot afford to live in the towns where they grew up.

Fink said he hopes the study will help.

“I think it’s very significant,” he noted.