Imagine this scenario: 35 years ago, you and your spouse bought a modestly sized home in a neighborhood in suburban Connecticut. It took just about everything that you had to put together the down payment — years of working hard and saving until you could purchase your own dream home.
One day you learn that the one-acre lot behind your property has been sold to a developer who plans to build a four-story apartment complex with 94 units, built right up to within three feet of your property line. After the initial shock and anger wears off, you ask yourself, what can you do? Surely, it would be impossible for any developer to get the approval to put up a building of that size in a lot that small.
But in Connecticut you can and this scenario is real. There’s a zoning law called 8-30g. It was enacted over 30 years ago in effort to build more affordable housing in Connecticut and it applies to all towns with less than 10 percent of total housing units deemed affordable.
8-30g enables housing developers to largely ignore zoning regulations governing height, lot coverage and setbacks if they deed-restrict 30% of the units to be affordable. It’s a great deal for developers and home builders but a bad deal for most neighborhoods who see their property values go down, their neighborhoods drastically changed and of course, negative effects on to our natural environment.
With 8-30g, the burden shifts from the applicant justifying the development, to the commission justifying a denial. There needs to be evidence of substantial harm to health or safety issues. Sometimes neighbors who can afford to hire an attorney to fight 8-30g applications do so (some successfully) but oftentimes, they impact very modest neighbors where residents don’t have the means to intervene.
Town Plan and Zoning commissioners like myself have to follow the law even though I suspect many of us struggle with it.
Despite many towns doing the hard work of adding affordable housing units, most towns will never be able to achieve 10 percent of their housing stock being deemed affordable. The math will never add up. The 10 percent ratio is virtually a mathematical impossibility in part because 70 percent of the new units need not be affordable.
Due to its draconian results the law seems to generate as much litigation as it does affordable housing units. In the 30 years of the 8-30g being law, only a small fraction of towns of our 169 cities and towns have achieved 10 percent.
We need to change it.
The 8-30g law has educated us on the laudable goal of creating more affordable housing. This is good. But it has come at a cost: by penalizing the vast majority of Connecticut towns that can never achieve the 10% target, the law sets up an unfairness paradigm degrading public support and encouraging litigation.
Land is finite and unique, and land use decisions permanently affect a Town’s economic, ecological and community health. We can and must find a better way.
Moratorium– Lower the threshold to enable towns to plan better and sooner without being inundated. In my very short tenure on the Fairfield TPZ, we’ve had two applications before us already.
Remove the burden-shifting component of 8-30g requiring Zoning Commissions to justify denials rather than applicants justifying development proposals. This leads to commissions rendering permanent land use decisions without being fully informed; often a poorer neighborhood can’t retain experts to challenge the applicant’s experts, leaving the commission without enough information of potential safety or other harm.
Provide leadership, education and training in novel ways to incorporate diverse housing and affordable housing within a communities existing scale and character, and how to fund the same so town’s can plan.
The law should be repealed and replaced with laws or programs that incentivize towns to expand affordable housing suited to each town’s unique characteristics.
All of us are stakeholders and it behooves each of us to inform our legislators, fellow residents and zoning boards of the importance of changing this harmful and punitive law.
Alexis Harrison is a member of Fairfield’s Plan and Zoning Commission. The views expressed here are hers alone.