The upcoming legislative session is likely to bring a new effort to pass meaningful zoning reforms, according to advocates for a fund that rewards towns that create affordable housing and eviction protections for tenants.
Growing Together Connecticut, a consortium of about 45 advocacy groups, faith leaders and housing experts, held a press conference Tuesday to announce their proposals for several housing-related measures they want to see lawmakers take up. The proposals included another attempt to pass what’s called a “fair share” law, which would require towns to plan and zone for more affordable housing based on the needs of the region and not just within their borders.
“Connecticut is one of the most expensive places to find housing in the country,” said Erin Boggs, executive director at Open Communities Alliance, one of Growing Together Connecticut’s members. “We are also one of the most segregated places in the country.
“And these things go together because when you take most of the state off the table for development of beautiful, denser, more cost-effective housing, and only a few municipalities step up to the plate welcoming such housing, you inevitably wind up with soaring housing costs, disinvestment from particular areas and barriers in accessing others. This is a formula for family economic hardship and statewide economic stagnation.”
The proposal asks the state to first assess the housing needs in Connecticut. Then, towns would split the responsibility to plan and zone for that need according to their region. The state would create a system to incentivize and ensure towns follow the plan, Boggs said.
The goal is to increase the amount of affordable housing in Connecticut and cut down on segregation.
The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Connecticut lacks about 85,400 units of housing that are affordable and available to renters with extremely low incomes. But the gap in affordable housing may be closer to 135,000 units over the next 10 years, Boggs said Tuesday.
Municipal leaders and residents have objected to many zoning reform proposals, including fair share, saying they erode local control.
Advocates said Tuesday they’re hopeful legislation will pass this session where other measures have fallen short because the circumstances are right — it’s not an election year and the session is longer, meaning legislators will have more time to hash out details.
Last year’s proposal suggested that each town’s share of affordable housing would be based on its wealth, median income compared to other towns in the region, percentage of housing stock that’s multifamily and the poverty rate.
Housing experts attribute much of Connecticut’s housing affordability problems to local zoning policies that restrict the number of multifamily units in towns. Those policies mean there are fewer apartments that people with low incomes can afford.
“Connecticut municipalities are currently in a Darwinian race to the bottom, practically competing to limit the number of cost effective housing units built,” Boggs said.
Open Communities Trust, which was launched by Open Communities Alliance, is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed earlier this year against the town of Woodbridge, claiming the town’s zoning policies violate the state’s Fair Housing Act and portions of the state constitution by restricting the number of multi-family units that can be built.
The lawsuit suggests the town plan and zone for its “fair share” of affordable housing, and experts have said that, if implemented, it could serve as a model for land use reform in other states.
New Jersey implemented the policy after a 1975 court decision, and it has led to the creation of tens of thousands of units of affordable housing.
Advocates also called for the legislature to establish a new $50 million fund called the Housing Growth Fund that would annually reward towns that build affordable housing.
“This investment in homes will not solve Connecticut’s housing crisis. But it’s a down payment on the kind of future we should be trying to build,” said Karen DuBois-Walton, president of Elm City Communities, the housing authority in New Haven.
The coalition also plans to push for eviction protections for renters. Boggs said they’ll likely support renewed attempts to pass legislation proposed in recent sessions.
Last session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have protected tenants against lapse of time evictions — or evictions filed because a lease has expired – for tenants who live in larger apartment buildings. The bill also included protections against excessive rent increases.
Evictions have been on the rise in Connecticut. They have been shown to affect many parts of life. People of color and women, particularly women of color, are most likely to face eviction, research shows.
From August 2019 to February 2020, no-cause evictions made up about 9% of total filings. From August 2021 to February 2022, they made up 35% of total filings, according to data from the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.
Advocates have also pushed in recent legislative sessions for laws that would keep certain eviction cases from going online into a public database, or would remove the eviction records more quickly.
Jahaira Vega, who was evicted earlier this year from her apartment in West Hartford, spoke at Tuesday’s press conference. Vega lived in the apartment with her two daughters — 13 and 22 — for four years, she said, before she was evicted.
She and the landlord started to have problems because she reported electrical problems to the fire department. The problems caused the heat to kick on in the middle of the summer, leading to temperatures of more than 90 degrees in the unit.
She said she also learned after reporting the problem that the third floor had an illegal unit, and wiring issues meant she was paying for their electricity. In March, after she reported the problems, her landlord raised her rent by $200.
The landlord filed an eviction in June, and at the end of September, she and her daughters became homeless. They lived at motels, she said, which ate away at her savings.
“We’re all still going through the process of getting back on our feet,” Vega said after the press conference.
She applied for close to 50 apartments but couldn’t find a place because of the eviction on her record, she said, even though she has a housing choice voucher that covers part of her rent.
The family eventually had to move out of West Hartford to find a home.
“I chose to be in West Hartford because the schools were good for my family and kids,” Vega said. “But I realized there was no option for me. In this experience, it has become clear that we need more options that are affordable, and we need more protection to keep people from being evicted — people like me and my children.”