A new regional plan for diversifying the housing stock in the lower Connecticut River Valley includes establishing a housing commission, studying the feasibility of transit-oriented development, and the creation of an online resource with more information about affordable housing.
The plan, which is available for public comment through the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Governments, is meant to be a sort of umbrella that helps create a cohesive plan as municipalities adopt their own plans. It hasn’t yet received final approval.
The RiverCOG comprises 17 towns: Chester, Clinton, Cromwell, Deep River, Durham, East Haddam, East Hampton, Essex, Haddam, Killingworth, Lyme, Middlefield, Middletown, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook, Portland and Westbrook.
“The regional approach, I think, is important because housing markets, job markets, transportation networks, are all regional,” said Sam Gold, the council’s executive director. “ … There’s no town that exists on its own.”
Public comment is open through July 27.
The plan is a supplement to the affordable housing plans localities submitted as part of a 2017 law that requires towns to submit the plans to the state every five years. This summer was the first time those plans were due.
Lack of affordable housing is a longstanding problem in Connecticut, and the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. Rents and house prices have risen, making more of the state’s housing unaffordable to people with low incomes.
Housing is typically considered affordable if people are spending up to a third of their income on housing costs. Connecticut lacks more than 85,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to the lowest income renters, according to estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Experts say much of the problem can be attributed to local zoning ordinances, which have made it difficult to develop multi-family housing. Multi-family housing tends to be more affordable for people with lower incomes.
RiverCOG is one of a few regional councils of government to tackle affordable housing, although strategies vary, said Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities. The Western Council of Government’s proposed plan, released in the spring, was widely criticized by housing experts and advocates.
But Ghio said he thinks RiverCOG’s plan has promise; it includes enough details and realistic solutions that he thinks it could be effective if the towns agree to participate, he said.
“I think what’s important about the plan is it ties sort of the economic future of the region to housing,” Ghio said. “ … It’s realistic. This is a region that hasn’t seen any job growth, and it’s not alone in Connecticut in that. So what do we do differently?”
RiverCOG’s plan addresses the region’s aging population. The existing housing stock largely doesn’t meet the region’s needs anymore, according to the plan draft.
The plan also includes an assessment of the region’s housing needs.
“The Region’s large, old, expensive, single-family units are not well matched to its aging demographic and shrinking household size,” the plan says. “This existing stock is also unlikely to attract or retain the younger population that the Region will need to thrive.
“Another concern is that many of these units are simply unattainable to a significant portion of the population who work in the region. The assessment concluded that the Region needs to increase its supply of smaller, modern, and more affordable units in order to provide housing opportunity for each of these groups.”
After a review of the region’s demographics, housing stock and housing needs, RiverCOG developed three overarching recommendations, said Megan Jouflas, a RiverCOG senior planner.
The first is to create a housing commission. The commission would be staffed by RiverCOG and each town would have representation, Jouflas said.
Possible tasks for the commission could include developing a regional housing authority, overseeing a housing trust fund or managing a regional land bank, according to the plan. Housing trust funds are created to help pay for affordable housing projects, and land banks typically acquire and manage property so that it can meet goals such as increasing affordable housing.
RiverCOG also suggests that the commission conduct housing needs assessments every five years in conjunction with the state-required affordable housing plans.
“It would be our recommendation that this entity would create a regional housing needs assessment, probably a step further than what we did in this process,” Jouflas said. “Where they actually come up with a methodology and a number of units that need to be built in the town. And then that information will be used to inform the towns’ specific plans.”
The commission also suggested a study of the region’s capacity for transit-oriented development.
Transit-oriented development is a planning concept that encourages more residential density around public transit stations. It’s been pushed in state legislation by the advocacy group Desegregate CT.
Advocates of transit-oriented development say it encourages more use of public transportation, a boon to the environment. It also encourages more housing development, which tends to drive housing costs down overall and can offer easy access to transportation. Access to transportation has been shown to be a challenge for people with low incomes.
The region has three Shoreline East commuter rail stations, but only 30% of the land within a half mile of the stations is in medium density residential zones, and 15% is zoned for mixed-use development, according to the RiverCOG plan.
RiverCOG suggests that towns analyze whether the land around the transit stations has the capacity to support more mixed-use development “to create better access and connectivity in the Region.”
The council also suggests that staff create a “housing toolkit,” an online resource repository with information about affordable housing. It would have best practices, sample language for policy changes and information about topics such as inclusionary zoning and accessory dwelling units.
“Many of the goals in the municipal AHP require regulatory and policy changes,” the report says. “Enacting these changes typically involves significant time and resources. Since many of the proposed changes overlap among the Region’s municipalities, some of the pre-work should be coordinated at the regional level.”
The analysis included with the plan says the region can support about 200 new units of housing annually, as a low estimate, and 600 as a high estimate.
“A lot of our approach to this has been focused on building more housing without compromising sustainability,” Jouflas said.