A new zoning bill would allow denser housing development around Connecticut’s train stations, with goals of making housing more affordable and providing easier access to transportation, experts said during a public hearing Monday.
House Bill 5429, backed by advocacy group Desegregate Connecticut, would require towns to allow housing with at least 15 units per acre within a half mile of a passenger, commuter rail or bus rapid transit station. At least 10% of the units would have to be designated as affordable.
Several local officials and legislators spoke against the bill, saying it would primarily increase density, not affordability. They also said the bill doesn’t take into account the unique needs of Connecticut’s towns.
Under the bill, which would go into effect Oct. 1, developers wouldn’t need to undergo the public hearing process to build in those areas, and decisions on permit applications must be issued within 65 days of submission.
Supporters say that the bill, which supports a concept often called transit-oriented development, would increase overall housing stock in Connecticut and allow people to easily use public transportation for commutes.
Access to transportation is often particularly challenging for people with lower incomes, many of whom don’t have cars. Public transportation also benefits the environment if fewer people drive.
Supporters also said the zoning would increase foot traffic to local businesses close to the stations.
Rent and house prices have spiked nationwide as demand has outpaced available supply. And in Connecticut, new development for multi-family housing is particularly tough because of restrictive local zoning laws, advocates have said.
“The more housing that is created, the more affordable it is overall,” said Sara Bronin, founder of Desegregate CT. “It’s a sort of economics argument. That goes both for purchase prices and rental prices.”
Alan Cavagnaro, a college sophomore and a planning and zoning commissioner for South Windsor, spoke in favor of the bill, saying he’d seen graduates forced to leave the state because they couldn’t afford housing in Connecticut.
“Whether it be an affordable place to live, or increased use of public transit, there is more that we can do,” Cavagnaro said in written testimony. “What’s the point of having job opportunities in CT if our state isn’t affordable to live in for the next generation of leaders and innovators?”
His testimony led to an exchange with Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, a Republican who represents Greenwich and Stamford, about whether housing is a right or a “want.”
Cavagnaro said in response to a question from Fiorello that it was a right — that it’s a habitat that humans need, and that there are lots of people in Connecticut who are having a hard time finding an affordable place to live. That’s a problem that needs to be addressed, Cavagnaro said in testimony.
“Housing is not a right, because housing is built by other people,” Fiorello responded. “It’s a want, and there’s a variety of different housing that people may want. But housing is not a right. You don’t have a right to other people’s labor. … People will offer it at a certain price, and you are either willing to pay for it or not.”
Other officials said they thought the bill would negatively impact particular towns.
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, expressed concern with his town’s train stations, which he said weren’t suitable for housing development. They’re surrounded by wetlands, near a beach and a school, he said.
Certain types of land are exempt from the requirement, including wetlands, steep slopes and areas necessary for protecting drinking water, among other classifications.
Steinberg said that while he supports more affordable housing development, “this bill is not the way to do it.”
“It ignores the basic facts on the ground,” Steinberg told members of the Planning and Development Committee.
And Danielle Dobin, planning and zoning commissioner for Westport, echoed sentiments brought up last week during a public hearing for another affordable housing bill that Connecticut should wait to see the effects of a 2017 law. She said that towns, including Westport, are already working on their affordable housing development plans required under a 2017 law.
The law, 8-30j, requires towns to develop affordable housing plans every five years. The first is due in July.
Fred Camillo, Greenwich’s first selectman, said the bill would hurt property values. There are other ways to make it less expensive to live in Connecticut, Camilo argued.
“I would focus on jobs,” he said. “Lower the taxes. Make it easier to live here.”
Karen DuBois-Walton, president of Elm City Communities/the Housing Authority of New Haven, said in written testimony that the bill would make it easier to live in Connecticut for many families.
“I’m here to support HB 5429 because, in an era of spiking gas prices and a rapidly warming climate, housing is not affordable if it is not close to affordable transit,” DuBois-Walton wrote.
Supporters of the bill reiterated the urgency of the need for more housing in Connecticut.
“Our current zoning system, with individual towns left to determine how and where to develop such housing if at all, has left us with this housing shortage,” Kiley Gosselin, executive director at the Partnership for Strong Communities, wrote in her testimony. “Our families and our state economy are suffering as a result.”