Many ideas, but little agreement, on how to address Connecticut’s affordable housing issues
On one point, there seems to be bi-partisan agreement among state legislators and many of those who testified during the Planning and Development Committee’s marathon 24-hour hearing on affordable housing this week: For many people, living in Connecticut is too expensive.
While suburban and urban Democrats offer a number of solutions among themselves, Republicans are generally opposed to the state getting any more involved in spurring the development of more affordable housing through statewide zoning reforms. Meanwhile, housing advocates are somewhat divided on what the best approach is. The administration of Gov. Ned Lamont is staying out of the debate and has not submitted any testimony on zoning reform legislation.
“A lot of us last summer realized that we needed to do a lot more around the inherent structural racism that exists in our society,” said Committee Co-chairman Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, referring to the disproportionate toll the coronavirus has had on Black and Latino residents and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. “We certainly have very diverse viewpoints among our committee members, but I’m confident that working together we will come forward with legislation that will probably make everyone slightly unhappy but hopefully will move the ball forward for us as a state.”
The issue itself is nothing new. Invisible walls created by many local zoning boards and the state government have historically blocked affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it. More than three dozen towns in the state have blocked construction of any privately developed duplexes and apartments within their borders for the last two decades, the CT Mirror and ProPublica reported in 2019. As far back as data has been kept, Connecticut’s low-income housing has been concentrated in poor cities and towns, an imbalance that has not budged over the last three decades.
This inertia often locks low-income people out of educational and employment opportunities. In southwest Connecticut, for example, it costs 3.5 times more to live near the high-scoring elementary schools in Westport, Weston or Wilton than in Bridgeport, one of the most impoverished cities in the state. Many attribute that situation to HUD and state officials sitting on the sidelines while many neighboring communities have refused to allow construction of reasonably priced apartments or duplexes that lower-income residents could afford.
Compared to other states, Connecticut comes in 49th place for building housing.
“Connecticut needs more homes for more people in all our towns. Connecticut’s towns can be great places to live and can also be more affordable,” Kiley Gosselin, executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, testified.
But developers said exclusionary zoning is inhibiting their ability to construct even two-, three- and four-unit housing developments.
“We feel that towns are missing opportunities to meet this housing demand,” said Eric Santini, who develops multi-family housing throughout the Tolland County region and is president of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut. “I can tell you the demand is real. Our properties in Ellington and Vernon are 100% full. We’ve got a long waiting list, and that has been fairly consistent, not just recently, but really the last decade.”
Here is a rundown of solutions being considered.
Allow some housing to be built without a public hearing
Nearly every town in Connecticut prohibits the construction of multi-family housing without special permission from local officials, according to an inventory of local zoning regulations compiled in January by Desegregate CT, a coalition of dozens of non-profits lobbying the legislature to pass land-use reforms to help reverse the state’s status as one of the most segregated places in the country.
One proposal before the Planning and Development Committee would allow the construction of multi-family developments close to a town’s main train station and two-, three-, and four-unit developments in the downtown corridor — without a developer first needing to go through a public hearing and winning approval from the local planning and zoning board. Instead, towns officials could either preemptively develop zoning regulations for such development in those areas of their town or use state-recommended zoning codes. This would impact all cities and towns except those where there are fewer than 7,500 residents.
The public hearing process itself, some say, is the problem.
Many who show up to testify on proposed affordable housing projects point to frail public infrastructure, clogged streets, a lack of sidewalks and concerns of overcrowding that would damage what’s often referred to as “neighborhood character.”
Research has shown that when a project is opened to public testimony, the feedback is overwhelmingly negative and the demographics of those testifying are not representative of the region.
“My work shows that an as-of-right process [without a public hearing] is more equitable than our current process, which privileges the voices of advantaged, older, white homeowners,” testified Katherine Levine Einstein, an associate professor at Boston University’s Department of Political Science. “Planning and zoning board meetings triggered by the special permit/variance process amplify the voices of an unrepresentative group overwhelmingly opposed to the construction of new housing.”
Fair housing advocates and attorneys say there is something deeper to this pushback that specific projects often receive during public hearings.
The legal team challenging Woodbridge to allow the construction of four-unit homes in town without a public hearing or special zoning commission approval testified about their frustration with people raising environmental, architectural or other concerns during public hearings about multi-family housing, including during the committee’s hearing Monday.
“These are never things that get raised when you imagine the largest … single family development — but only get weaponized against multi-family,” said Karen Anderson, a law student at Yale. She is among those working on the Woodbridge case, which could have implications for other Connecticut towns with a preponderance of land zoned only for single family homes.
But several Republicans and some suburban Democratic legislators see limiting public hearings on specific proposed projects as a way to stifle important feedback from residents on how a development will affect them, the environment or the character of a community.
“I can’t in good faith support the removal of a local public hearing process, which I believe to be the very foundation of the checks and balances needed between communities and developers. Residents often know more than traffic experts, developers and, I daresay, legislators,” testified Rep. Stephanie Thomas, a freshman Democrat who represents Westport, Wilton and Norwalk.
Jane Sprung, a resident and elected official in Greenwich, testified, “As a homeowner, we should be able to have a local voice … Flooding the market with new inventory that maxes out property coverage on each lot will result in greater infrastructure demands, greater storm water runoff and other potential environmental impacts.”
“We like our local control, and we would like to keep it that way,” Rep. David Rutigliano, R- Trumbull, told the committee.
Officials from Westport and other well-off communities testified that requiring denser development around their downtowns and train stations without their local officials signing off would undermine their efforts to open affordable housing. Danielle Dobin, a Democrat and chair of Westport’s Planning and Zoning Commission, predicts such a change will just lead to more multimillion-dollar town houses being constructed in her community, rather than homes for middle- and lower-income residents.
The founder of Desegregate CT — who helped develop the legislation being considered by the committee — is adamant that the public is not being taken out of the process, because they will still have the opportunity to help shape the codes and what small housing looks like locally, just not on a project-by-project basis. She also points out that any development with more than 10 units would have to reserve 10% of the units for lower-income residents and that market forces will drive down costs by allowing more housing to be built.
The committee has “been hearing from elected officials who say that this will totally change the zoning statute and totally usurp town zoning authority, and that could not be farther from the truth,” Sara Bronin explained.
‘A fair share’ for every town
In an effort to respect local control — but not allow towns to ignore their obligations under the Federal Fair Housing laws — another bill would leave it entirely up to municipalities to determine how to provide their so-called “fair share” of affordable housing but would attach strict enforcement mechanisms if a town’s plan or implementation is not ambitious enough. The fair share would be determined after a housing-needs assessment is completed and overseen by the state. After that, each town would be required to provide a specific number of affordable housing units to meet that need.
The plan is modeled after the Mount Laurel case in New Jersey, where the courts required towns to provide low-income residents the opportunity to live in their communities.
“Towns that have greater means and less of a track record of contributing to a solution are asked to do more. Towns with high rates of poverty, 20% or more, have already done their fair share,” said Erin Boggs, the executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, the chief proponent of this bill in Connecticut. Her organization is also leading the effort in Woodbridge to begin allowing multi-family housing. “It’s really the right thing to do, because in one fell swoop, it allows Connecticut to address both its racial segregation and its affordable housing crises, while ensuring that towns really remain in charge in their own planning and zoning.”
Homeownership has long been one of the best ways for families to accumulate wealth, but for generations, it has been elusive for many Black and Latino families and for those interested in owning in certain communities. Almost 85 years ago, federal officials and mortgage lenders began rating mortgage risk based on neighborhood, race, ethnicity and economic status and refused to lend outside of white areas — a practice known as redlining — and many white homeowners refused to sell to minorities. Though the practice was outlawed years ago, the consequence of perpetuating poverty festers, since it prevented minority residents from building wealth through homeownership.
Making the inequality even worse today are exclusionary local zoning requirements that thrive throughout Connecticut. Requiring a single-family home be on a lot that is at least one acre, or forbidding duplexes from being constructed, drives up the cost of purchasing a home and continues to put homeownership out of reach for many Black and Latino families.
The wounds of decades of being shut out from having the ability to purchase or rent a place in the suburbs or find an affordable place in a city that is not struggling with concentrated poverty have not healed, several testified.
“I am so embarrassed to now live in Connecticut and see how segregated it is and for people to be in such denial,” testified Antonia Edwards, a Manchester resident who shared stories of family and friends struggling to find a home to purchase or a place to rent without facing blatant discrimination. “Give people the opportunity. Not everybody wants to live in the ghetto or the ‘hood. Some people are stuck there because of redlining. People say we got rid of redlining, we did, then they put zoning in its place and discriminatory practices.”
Past efforts by the Obama administration, and the administration of former Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, to link housing affordability plans with enforcement mechanisms have fallen flat, however.
Richard Ives, the first selectman of Brooklyn, told the committee there is a time for state involvement.
“I think we may need a little bit of a shove,” he said, pointing out that homeless and elderly residents are struggling to find housing in his small rural town. “We need a push.”
A state affordable-housing tax on towns
If towns want to be enclaves from the rest of the state, the state should levy a tax on their homeowners for that privilege, the leader of the state Senate believes.
The proposal from Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven — referred by some as a “mansion tax” — would add a state affordable-housing tax on the value of homes over $430,000. There would be different tiers for the tax. Towns that have at least 10% affordable housing would have no extra tax, while those with less than 2% affordable would have an added 2 mills on their property tax.
Such a tax would raise roughly $97 million a year that could be funneled back towards constructing affordable housing elsewhere, the legislature’s non-partisan fiscal office estimates. Homeowners in Lamont’s home town of Greenwich would pick up the largest tab of $26 million, followed by Westport, with almost $11 million.
“I think that the tax proposal, in addition to raising revenue, does give people an incentive. So if you’re in the bottom tier, you’re not forever going to be stuck with a two-mill increase if you develop affordable housing,” Looney said.
During a separate public hearing on this bill on Monday, several residents from wealthy towns expressed their outrage with the proposal.
“Senate Bill 172 appears to be an extortion tax. It threatens local towns with ‘If you don’t do this, we will make you pay,'” said Woodbury resident Deborah Schultz.
More taxpayers, not higher taxes
In his budget address in February, Lamont listed “a more affordable Connecticut” as a top priority for this legislative session.
“Over the last year, we’ve experienced a real estate boom in Connecticut, with tens of thousands of new residents discovering … Connecticut is a beautiful state,” he said of the 24,000 additional families moving into the state in 2020 compared to 2019.
When asked about how to make Connecticut affordable and an attractive place to live, Lamont regularly makes the point that he wants more residents to tax rather than raising taxes on those who are here.
But the constraint of available housing is driving up costs, and first-time and lower-income buyers are typically the losers in bidding wars, several real estate agents and residents hoping to purchase their first home told the CT Mirror in November.
During Monday’s public hearing, Republican legislators regularly pointed out that they agree with Lamont’s firm position on not raising taxes while saying Connecticut’s high taxes are the real problem with housing affordability, not zoning.
“I did a real estate closing the other day where the taxes on a modest house were more than the mortgage insurance bond,” said Rep. Joseph Zullo, R-East Haven, the house minority leader of the Planning and Development Committee. “I think that’s a reflection of the tax problems that we have in Connecticut, so I don’t think it’s fair to say that necessarily exclusionary zoning is just an issue, or is a factor, or is a huge factor. … The entire tax climate in Connecticut, and the lack of affordability in Connecticut, is one of the biggest factors for people being cost burdened.”
On the same day Lamont released his budget, the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority released new data that showed “housing prices have soared” as demand skyrocketed. In Lamont’s budget, he recommended appropriating $150 million next year to construct subsidized affordable housing, an amount that will help to slightly blunt steady declines in the amount of affordable housing construction being funded by the Department of Housing.
The administration submitted no proposed legislation aimed at tackling the larger systemic issues driving up housing costs, and the Department of Housing declined to comment on the various zoning reform bills being considered by the legislature.
During a stop in Bridgeport on Monday to promote COVID vaccines while the public hearing was taking place at the state Capitol complex, Lamont said he prefers luring towns to create affordable housing with funding but is open to discussions.
“I think we’re strongly supportive of more affordable housing, more diversity of housing, not just in our cities, but in our towns. I prefer to use incentives and collaboration to work with people to get that done. I think the plan on the accessory apartments, that makes some sense. How come I’m not allowed to rent out something to a teacher in my house if I’d like to? So there are some very good pieces to the bill that we’re going to be taking a look at,” he said.
Is this the year for reform?
But Looney, a longtime supporter of reforming the state’s land-use laws, thinks there is a growing awareness and chorus calling for changes that could spur real change this year.
“I want to do it all,” he said of the zoning reforms that received a public hearing Monday. “I think there’s a heightened awareness. We want to try to take advantage of the moment to move forward on this issue, because we see zoning practices and exclusionary zoning — and the stark contrast between communities that are heavily minority right next door in some cases to communities that are 90%-plus white. I think that there’s a heightened awareness to the injustice of that, and the fact that zoning practices are a fundamental part of that. I think that we need to try to take advantage of the fact that that issue is being more broadly discussed in society than it was before.”
State Treasurer Shawn Wooden called on the state to adopt changes.
“CT is one of the most segregated states. It’s time to end decades worth of discriminatory housing policies by empowering localities to create a more equitable future for communities,” he tweeted on Tuesday.
Many members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus also want reform, said Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., D-Waterbury, leader of the caucus.
“We’re always looking for inclusionary practice and affordable housing opportunities, especially in places where we’ve been kind of shut out through legal zoning practices. It’s another discretionary way of pretty much saying, ‘You’re not wanted here,'” he said, noting housing and equity are top priorities of this legislative session. “I’d like to think that we’re in a different era, but the truth of the matter is that there are so many rural and suburban communities that are just not interested in changing their zoning laws. So, I think, they maybe need to be called out and forced to handle the problem.”
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, a longtime supporter of land use reforms and the chamber’s first person of color to become the majority leader, also hopes to get something passed this year.
During his countless hours of Zoom meetings, he’s reminded those watching his screen that zoning reform is a priority by placing Richard Rothstein’s book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America” in the background.
During a press conference last week to back the fair-share housing proposal, he said, “simply being opposed is really not an option according to state law and federal law. … So what we’re trying to do is meet them somewhere in the middle and empower them to make these decisions.”
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