In Connecticut, affordable housing remains a hotly contested issue. ProPublica

Original reporting by Ginny Monk, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Tom Condon. Compiled by Gabby DeBenedictis.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of CT Mirror’s Spanish-language news coverage developed in partnership with Identidad Latina Multimedia.

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With less than 30 days until the 2022 elections, affordable housing has emerged as a key issue in Connecticut’s state and local races.

Despite its liberal image — and with Democrats controlling the legislature for the last 25 years and the governor’s residence for 11 — Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country. For years, Connecticut’s affordable housing has been concentrated in poor cities and towns, an imbalance that has not budged.

Three decades ago, state lawmakers passed a law that set the stage for the courts to review local zoning decisions in towns with few affordable homes. The law — commonly referred to by its statutory reference as 8-30g — was designed to encourage affordable housing development in the state’s suburban communities.

It has had limited impact, but it remains in the political crosshairs.

In September, Connecticut Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski repeated his calls to repeal 8-30g. He cited a need for more local control.

What is affordable housing? What does 8-30g stipulate? What do its supporters and opponents say about it? How has it come into play this election cycle?

Here’s what you need to know.

What is considered ‘affordable housing’ in Connecticut?

Housing is typically considered affordable if people are spending up to a third of their income on housing costs.

In Connecticut, the existing affordable housing stock is concentrated in high-poverty neighborhoods. And there isn’t enough.

Connecticut has a shortage of nearly 87,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to extremely low income renters, according to estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Under 8-30g, the state tracks the percentage of housing in each town that is designated as affordable, which includes units that receive government assistance for construction or rehabilitation of low- to moderate-income housing, housing that is occupied by people getting rent assistance, and deed-restricted properties, among other categories.

What is 8-30g, Connecticut’s affordable housing law?

Enacted in 1990, 8-30g is a law that pushes — but does not require — all municipalities to have 10% of their housing stock deemed affordable.

To encourage towns to reach 10%, the law created a process that allows developers to bypass local zoning decisions by going through the courts if they set aside 30% of a project’s units for low-income housing.

Let’s say a developer wants to build a multi-family, mixed-income apartment complex. The developer needs approval of a site plan, and also may need a zone change. Then imagine the P&Z denies the application.

Prior to 8-30g, the developer could take an appeal to Superior Court. But the court acted on the premise that the zoning authority acted properly, even if the denial was for vague or nebulous reasons such as “adversely affects community character” or “unsuitable at that location.” So the burden of proof was on the developer to show that the P&Z improperly rejected the application, often a steep challenge.

The significant aspect of 8-30g is that it flipped the burden of proof. Now if a local zoning board turns down an application that is 8-30g compliant — meaning at least 30% of the unit income is restricted for a period of 40 years — the onus is on the local commission to show that its denial was for specific reasons related to public health or safety, that these interests clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing, and that the public interests cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the proposal. 

Towns are exempt from this if at least 10% of their housing stock is designated affordable. 

How many towns are exempt from 8-30g?

Thirty-one Connecticut cities and towns had at least 10% of their housing designated as affordable in 2021. The remaining towns are not exempt.

Towns can also temporarily halt unrestricted development by making progress toward the 10% threshold and earning a moratorium, which lasts for four years.

Even after the state legislature loosened 8-30g in 2017 to make it easier to earn these moratoriums, few towns have done so.

So … is 8-30g working?

Housing experts have referred to 8-30g as an important tool to developing more affordable housing in a state that lacks tens of thousands of rental units that its lowest-income residents can afford.

But the law has had limited impact.

Just 2% of all the housing developed in Connecticut since 1990 is dedicated to low-income families. As of 2019, the share of housing for low-income residents had actually decreased in 47 of the state’s 169 municipalities, according to state Department of Housing data.

Why is 8-30g relevant this election cycle?

Last year, the General Assembly passed the first significant legislation in years to nudge towns to loosen their restrictive zoning policies.

While approval only came after huge concessions from the original legislation, its passage brought 8-30g back into focus for lawmakers and local officials, particularly in Fairfield County, who say it erodes local control.

Some lawmakers — including Rep. Laura Devlin, a Fairfield Republican and Stefanowski’s running mate — backed a bill this year to study 8-30g. Advocates said the bill was a veiled attack on the law, and many who supported the study spoke against 8-30g.

The bill did not advance out of committee.

Why does Bob Stefanowski want to repeal it?

Stefanowski has cited a need for more local control and points to the fact that few towns have met the 10% threshold as evidence that the law doesn’t work.

What does Stefanowski propose as an alternative?

Stefanowski said if elected, he wants to sit down with towns to learn more about the issues they face and determine whether they are trying to meet the affordable housing need.

He pointed to efforts in Fairfield to create a housing trust fund even though the town has a little less than 3% of its units designated affordable, according to 2021 data.

Where does Lamont stand on the issue?

During his first term in office, Gov. Ned Lamont has maintained a stance that he supports 8-30g in its current form — though it is a position he rarely voices when talking about affordable housing.

A spokesman for the governor said Stefanowski’s plan is not “a serious proposal.” Lamont’s administration says the state has made nearly $500 million in investments during his first term to support new affordable housing.

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