Fairfield, the town in which I live, like many other Connecticut towns, continues to make meaningful progress in adding diverse new housing to its existing stock of over 21,000 housing units. You may not be aware of our Town’s hard work and good results, and that may be due to the fact that we usually only hear about the ratio of affordable housing as a percent of total housing stock and how it’s not moving quickly towards 10%.
Towns that have 10% of their total housing stock designated as affordable are exempt from the controversial 8-30g affordable housing law. The 8-30g law is much maligned for a reason — it enables any size of a housing development in any location without regard to zoning laws that residents relied on when purchasing their own homes.
Simply put, 8-30g enables housing developers to largely ignore zoning regulations governing height, lot coverage, setbacks, traffic congestion, impact on property values, etc. if they deed-restrict 30% of the units to be affordable. The burden shifts from the applicant justifying the development to the commission justifying a denial, which can only be done if there is evidence of substantial harm to health or safety.
But it is a virtual mathematical impossibility for most towns to ever achieve 10% of their housing stock as affordable. Even so, this ratio is often cited at zoning hearings and in court appeals and Judges’ decisions as evidence that the town is not doing much to add affordable housing to its housing stock.
But this ratio is deeply flawed as an indicator of a town’s progress toward adding to its diversity, including affordability, of its housing stock. The ratio ignores many things and is itself misleading as a measure of a town’s progress. First, the math doesn’t work out.
Because 8-30g enables dense new housing development with only 30% being affordable, that means 70% is at full rental value. So even if all new development is 8-30g, the ratio would go up very slowly because total non-affordable units go up much more than the affordable ones.
Also, much new housing development isn’t based on 8-30g. Non-8-30g new housing may only add between 0-10% as affordable. So actual new affordable units can be added, but the ratio can still decrease because total housing stock increases much more.
All this means that the math won’t allow the 10% goal to be reached and in fact the ratio could decline despite adding large numbers of both affordable and non-affordable but still diversified housing stock.
Second, the ratio ignores actual progress and hard work being done by towns to diversify and expand its housing stock, most of which isn’t reflected in the percentage of affordable units to total housing units.
Fairfield has been continually adding to the diversity of its housing stock – in fact working toward the intent behind the 2020 and 2021 legislative proposals put forth in Hartford – by expanding multifamily apartments in transit areas, the use of in-law apartments (accessory dwelling units) and mixed-use housing above retail in the walkable downtown areas.
But adding to the diversity of housing doesn’t improve the ratio because generally only 0-10% of non-8-30g housing is designated as affordable. This means that the math gets worse for that ratio even though the town is doing exactly what housing advocates wish it to do. Towns will remain subject to 8-30g without an end in sight, and have a flat or declining ratio used against them in court, even as communities work hard to add to the diversity of housing.
The ratio thus sets up Connecticut’s towns with an unachievable goal and towns should not be charged with failure based on it. We shouldn’t allow all our town’s hard work and actual progress to be judged by this ratio.
But more importantly our state should reform 8-30g so it’s not used as a cudgel to impose unbridled development based on failure to achieve an unachievable ratio.
It must be acknowledged that the new state-wide zoning initiatives and laws (to add to the overall diversity of housing stock without focusing solely on affordable units) work at cross purposes to 8-30g (working towards an elusive 10% ratio of affordable to total housing units in all municipalities).
Zoning boards are required to follow state mandates, but here the mandates of the new zoning laws and proposals (which may still be enacted in future legislative sessions) versus the 30-year old 8-30g law contain conflicting objectives and towns are caught in the middle.
It is time for our state legislature to reform those laws that work at cross purposes with other laws while penalizing towns trying to achieve the goals of both.
Alexis Harrison is a candidate for the Fairfield Town Plan & Zoning Commission.