A few of the 18 new affordable housing units built by Greenwich at Armstrong Court.
A few of the 18 new affordable housing units built by Greenwich at Armstrong Court.

Imagine that you wanted, several years ago, to purchase a home in a suburban community. At that time, you chose a town where the town’s police officers were a part of the community, where volunteer firefighters and quick responders could leave their jobs to answer an alarm, where teachers knew the families of their pupils because they lived next door, and where Mom and Dad could downsize from the home where they raised you by moving to a less expensive home close to you and their friends.

Unfortunately, over the years the price of homes and the cost of rental units in your town have risen to the point where police and teachers can’t afford to live there. There aren’t enough volunteers living in town to staff the volunteer fire department which answers fire and emergency calls, so either high school students serve during the day, and/or paid firefighters from out of town have to be hired. And most distressing, your parents couldn’t find an affordable home or apartment in town, so they were forced to move to another community several miles away from your family and their friends.

Bill Cibes

Moreover, your kids, who grew up in your town and now are ready to move back there to be close to your family, find themselves in the same position as many who work in the town. Even you — their parents – wouldn’t be able to live there if you hadn’t bought your home decades ago when prices were much lower and far more affordable compared with incomes. As time has passed, your town has changed from one with diverse incomes into one which only the most prosperous can enter. Would you be pleased about that?

In many towns in Connecticut, this isn’t an imaginary situation. So more than 30 years ago, the General Assembly recognized that steps should be taken to lead towns to recognize that they had a responsibility to make housing affordable to essential workers, senior citizens, and a wide variety of others with diverse incomes.

In 1989, it passed a law that works: the Affordable Housing Appeals Procedure (better known by its statutory citation as “8-30g”). It’s one of the state’s most important zoning laws and is a key statute in inducing suburban towns to comply with their long-standing obligations under the state’s Zoning Enabling Act, which requires town zoning regulations to “promote housing choice and economic diversity in housing, including housing for both low and moderate income households.” It has spurred the approval and construction of workforce housing that would not have otherwise occurred.

Several recent op-ed letters ignore why 8-30g exists in the first place and why it is so important. The law was adopted because the zoning regulations of so many suburban towns effectively excluded housing with sufficient density to bring the cost of housing down to a reasonable level for everyone – not only for households of lower income but for the whole range of low- and middle-income households. Those local policies continue to exist. The provisions of 8-30g provide a way to overcome their objectionable exclusionary aspects.

• 8-30g does not require any town to build housing. At its core, it says that, if a developer is willing and prepared to build inclusionary housing in a suburban town, the town must show very good reasons for objecting. It is the town’s failure to promote and generate diverse housing that triggers the use of 8-30g.

• Despite the assertions of some op-ed writers, 8-30g is the opposite of failure: it has been a great success. Its existence – even if it is not triggered – has often successfully induced numerous towns to make room in their communities for diverse types of housing. It is directly responsible for thousands of new moderately priced housing units throughout the state and indirectly responsible for many, many more. Those units have enhanced the lives of the renters and homeowners who have come to live in them. This is success, not failure.

• 8-30g does not allow developers to “largely ignore zoning regulations.” To the contrary, 8-30g explicitly states that the town can deny an application on a showing of “substantial public interests in health, safety or other matters which the [zoning] commission may legally consider.” While the most compelling reasons are often those based on health and safety, 8-30g allows “any” factor to be weighed, as long as the factor is one that is legally within the scope of the commission. For example, height, bulk, and setback are factors that can be considered. So are historical factors. But the weighing process is different. They must be sufficiently compelling to outweigh the need for affordable housing. The town, in other words, cannot avoid affordable housing development by simply zoning it out or by saying we don’t need any more housing.

• 8-30g does not allow developers to ignore wetlands, fire safety, building, and similar requirements. It does not apply to sewer commissions, water pollution control authorities, or municipal historic commissions. It applies only to the decisions of planning and zoning commissions. For example, a developer whose application will affect a wetlands area must obtain wetlands approval from the appropriate commission under the same standards as any other building applicant.

• When developers appeal a negative decision by a town commission, they do not always win. When there are objections of real significance, the towns can win, which they do in almost one-third of 8-30g appeals.

• Moreover, some towns have learned, over time, to distinguish proposals of real harm from those that are merely exclusionary in nature, i.e., we don’t want “that type” of housing in our neighborhood. When towns approach 8-30g realistically and with an understanding of their duties under state zoning law, disagreements are worked out and the town and the applicant can ultimately reach an acceptable result. Those are win-win situations.

• The purpose of 8-30g is not and never has been to get all towns to the 10% exemption level. Its purpose is to encourage towns to promote the development of diverse housing for diverse income ranges by not routinely turning down development proposals. That is the very reason for the moratorium provisions, which provide workable ways in which towns can obtain moratoriums if they continue to actively pursue affordable housing development on their own terms. They reward towns that are making real efforts that successfully generate affordable housing development, without regard to whether the 10% level will ever be reached.

• 8-30g instead deliberately encourages suburban towns to seek successive four-year moratoriums from 8-30g if there is a flow of new housing being developed. The provision was designed so as to incentivize towns to affirmatively seek out potential developers for sites on which the town would like new affordable housing to be built. Can towns realistically obtain a four-year moratorium? Yes, of course they can. Ridgefield has had one. So have Brookfield, Farmington, and New Canaan. Darien, Trumbull, and Berlin have had two. Milford, Westport, South Windsor, and Suffield are currently in moratoriums. The argument that a town cannot escape 8-30g is simply wrong. A moratorium, however, is not for the purpose of escape. It is for the purpose of giving a town four years without 8-30g so that it can promote affordable housing development in its own way. When that doesn’t happen, it should look to its own policies and not blame 8-30g.

8-30g does not “penalize” towns. It does the opposite. The existence of affordable housing within a town – mixed-income housing that serves the whole range of people who live or work in the region – is a major benefit to the town, not a penalty. 8-30g helps towns resist the urge to be exclusionary and to recognize that they are parts of regions – and the state – in which all towns have obligations. Let’s not be quick to condemn a statute which promotes more diverse housing in all of our towns.

Bill Cibes lives in Hartford. He has been an advocate for affordable housing from his service as State Representative from New London in the 1980s through his more recent tenure as Chair of the Steering Committee of HOMEConnecticut for the Partnership for Strong Communities.