In my three decades leading Becker + Becker, an integrated architecture and development firm that has built affordable and mixed-income housing across Connecticut, I’ve seen firsthand how outdated zoning codes can stifle private investment. From excessive parking requirements to approval processes that discourage new housing, zoning complicates the task of creating viable and attractive housing for the whole range of our citizens.
And those projects that do proceed all too often burden the state’s residents with unnecessary costs. As a result, Connecticut ranks 48th out of 50 in affordability. To rectify that, we need an overhaul of how we plan and regulate our city and suburban landscapes.
Zoning puts many unnecessary obstacles in the path of a sane housing policy. Sewer connection fees, to take one mundane example, typically impose costs that greatly exceed the actual costs of tying into existing sewers, driving up housing costs. (The solution? Rebate fees which exceed actual connection costs.)
Parking requirements are even more onerous. In most Connecticut municipalities, zoning codes mandate that developers build a certain number of parking spaces, depending on the building type. The town of Darien, for instance, requires developers to build three parking spaces for one studio apartment. These parking mandates function as a de facto tax on housing creation, often preventing the development of housing for young people. Indeed, in some cases, constructing these parking spaces can cost as much as building the associated apartment. The solution is simple: cap parking mandates. If the market requires additional parking, it will be built.
We need zoning policies that will support both the kind of lifestyle people want and the businesses that can help provide it. Private development must be encouraged in our town centers, especially near public transit. Research shows that 76% of Americans would like to live in walkable communities, and permitting the private sector to construct vibrant main streets will allow them to do just that. To that end, Connecticut needs to take legislative steps to allow for creation of what is known as “middle housing” – multi-unit or clustered housing types, on the scale of single-family homes, that increase density in already residential areas, and that can help foster that walkable, urban lifestyle.
While middle housing is admired in traditional historic neighborhoods –- think brownstones and townhouses — antiquated zoning laws prevent its new construction in most Connecticut communities. Zoning regulations need to allow for housing to be created in mixed-use buildings, live-work spaces, basement apartments, and small additions. These types of housing are more affordable than the single-family homes that dominate our state — and they will greatly benefit those single-family homes. Homes near newly-built middle housing, on average, appreciate faster than their counterparts in exclusively single-family zones. Accessory dwelling units increase the resale value of single-family homes, often by as much as 50%. Middle housing is a win-win proposition that benefits homeowners and prospective residents alike, and the state legislature and municipal planning and zoning commissions should recognize that.
Every apartment project we have developed at Becker + Becker includes a percentage of units set aside those who can’t afford market rents. Why? Because people want to live more sustainably in diverse communities — and evidence shows that vibrant mixed-income communities are unusually strong and resilient. The private sector, and my own firm, stand ready to rise to the demand.
Zoning reform groups, such as DesegregateCT, are introducing legislation that would make many of the changes that we in the private sector need in order to do so. Our state legislators must rise to the occasion and pass comprehensive zoning reform to protect Connecticut’s future. We need to be more flexible and creative in our approach to housing. Zoning should boost that creative flexibility, not block it.
Bruce Redman Becker, FAIA, is director of Becker + Becker.