Recent comments from Democratic leadership and Gov. Ned Lamont suggest that housing and zoning — two hot-button policy topics with dire real-world consequences — will be major issues during the legislative session.
With new chairs at the helms of the committees that deal with zoning and housing — and an affordable housing crisis looming statewide — several bills related to eviction protection, a rent cap, homelessness and land-use reform are possible this session.
In the annual state of the state address, Lamont said the lack of affordable housing for much of the state’s workforce is a barrier to growth.
“But the biggest slam to our affordability and economic growth is housing, or the lack thereof. Every business thinking about moving or expanding repeats, over and over, ‘Even if you had the workforce, there is no place for them to live.’”
He also directly addressed municipalities and their local control of housing development.
“The answer cannot simply be more subsidies,” Lamont said Wednesday. “Connecticut towns and cities, you tell us where developers can build more housing so more housing can be built faster at less cost, and local control will determine how and where it is built.”
Housing experts said the governor’s recognition of the housing problem was good, although there need to be shifts from the old ways of zoning.
“I think the important point here is that what we have done thus far hasn’t worked,” said Erin Boggs, executive director at the Open Communities Alliance.
House majority leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, also brought up affordable housing as a way to address the heightened cost of living during a speech on the legislature’s opening day, signaling Democratic lawmakers’ willingness to address the issue.
“We must enact sound housing policy that addresses the dire need for increased production of housing of all types — for families with or without children, for young professionals, for the elderly, for those with physical and intellectual disabilities, for those reentering society from prison — to address housing insecurity and homelessness, which is to say we need more affordable housing, not less,” Rojas said. “We can work with our towns and cities and with each other to make that happen.”
A perfect storm
Connecticut lacks about 85,400 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest-income renters, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
Homelessness rose in 2022 for the first time in nearly a decade, and evictions have surged. Rents are rising statewide, and apartment vacancy rates are among the lowest in the country.
These trends have culminated in what advocates have called a “perfect storm” of housing issues.
For several years, housing experts have attributed much of Connecticut’s lack of affordable housing to local zoning policies that limit the number of apartments that can be built.
Policy advocates in Connecticut have already suggested a couple of zoning reform bills that aim to increase density around transit stations and mandate that towns plan for a certain number of new affordable units.
Democrats selected Sen. MD Rahman, D-Manchester, and Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, as co-chairs of the Planning and Development Committee. The committee typically deals with municipal zoning-related issues.
Rahman said he viewed affordable housing partly as a workforce issue. He wants to address the lack of affordable housing in Connecticut, particularly to make the state more economically successful.
Kavros DeGraw said she thinks it’s important for a chair to keep an open mind and expressed enthusiasm about the idea of further residential development around transit stations. But she declined to comment on the policy known as “fair share,” which would have towns plan and zone for certain numbers of new affordable units.
“I think the reality is we definitely know we have a housing crisis in Connecticut. We definitely have to be looking at any and all options … that’s not to say everything is going to get passed,” she said.
Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, will serve as co-chair of the Housing Committee, along with Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester. The two met years ago when they were legislative aides and share an interest in tenants’ rights issues.
Moore said her father was a landlord, which showed her firsthand the trouble some people have paying rent. Since the pandemic began, she has kept a growing file with the stories of people in her district who have called her in need of help. She hopes to address some of the problems they face this session.
She also plans to look at the lack of an enforcement mechanism in a 2017 law that required municipalities to create affordable housing plans and to help address the needs of the unhoused.
Homelessness has “gotten out of hand,” she said.
Luxenberg, who works at homeless service provider Hands on Hartford, has spent the past couple of weeks learning everything he can about housing. He’s focused on homelessness — both the needs of people experiencing homelessness and preventing housing loss at its root.
He says he’s looking for “creative solutions” to prevent housing instability, cut down on housing costs and increase the stock of affordable housing.
“I think everything is on the table when it comes to policy solutions to keep people in their homes when it comes to the tragedy of eviction,” Luxenberg said.
Evictions have risen in Connecticut since pandemic-era protections expired. An eviction can have long-lasting effects on health, education, mental health and future housing for tenants.
Advocates are likely to push for a couple of measures to protect tenants against eviction and improve their outcomes after an eviction, including expanding protections against no-cause evictions and removing certain eviction records from the judicial website.
Eviction records can remain online for years, said Giovanna Shay, litigation and advocacy director at Greater Hartford Legal Aid. This makes it harder for tenants who have had evictions filed against them to find new places to live.
Legal aid groups are pushing to have some of these records quickly removed from the judicial website and kept inaccessible to tenant screening companies that pay for court data — particularly in cases in which the case was withdrawn, dismissed or the tenant won.
Legal aid attorneys and the Connecticut Tenants Union are also pushing for an expansion in protections against no-cause evictions.
No-cause evictions, which typically occur after a tenant’s lease has expired, have risen this year, likely in part because most evictions for nonpayment of rent were banned under a federal moratorium during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s continued because some out-of-state landlords want to raise rents and are looking to evict tenants with lower rents, said Rafie Podolsky, an attorney with the Legal Assistance Resource Center of Connecticut.
A years-old law requires cause to evict people in certain groups, including people with disabilities and people over the age of 62 in buildings with five or more units.
Advocates want to see the protection extended to all tenants in buildings with five or more units. Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer with the Connecticut Tenants Union, said it could help protect tenants who are organizing against retaliation.
“I think in the past year we saw just how vital it was for tenant organizing,” Melonakos-Harrison said.
The union is among groups aiming to introduce a rent increase cap in Connecticut.
Its proposal would limit annual rent increases to 3%, even between tenants.
“We’ve never seen rent increases like this,” Melonakos-Harrison said. “We’ve spent a huge amount of energy this year fighting, in some cases, hundreds of dollars of rent increase.”
Some municipalities have fair rent commissions that allow tenants to submit complaints regarding excessive rent increases. The legislature expanded the number of commissions last year, but not all towns have them.
Homeless service providers are asking for increased funding to address the need they’ve seen over the past few years: $50 million in funding for the Homeless Response System.
They want the money to strengthen homeless response organizations and increase wages for homeless service staff, annualize funding for the Coordinated Access Network Infrastructure, annualize cold weather emergency program funding and create a flexible funding source to help pay for things such as security deposits and application fees.
The Coordinated Access Network is the regional system of shelters and service providers that assist people experiencing homelessness in Connecticut.
“We’re asking to strengthen the foundation of our homeless response system so that each year we can work toward ending homelessness in Connecticut, which is an attainable goal in our state,” said Evonne Klein, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness.
Homelessness increased in Connecticut for the first time in nearly a decade in 2022. The annual count estimated that there were nearly 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in the state.
“This system needs to be appropriately funded,” Klein said. “There’s no shortcut. … When you’re talking about housing being the No. 1 issue, you’re also talking about homelessness being the No. 1 issue. You can’t decouple that.”
Another housing advocacy consortium, HOMEConnecticut, is asking for more investments in improving housing stability statewide.
They’d like to see more money put toward the state’s general Rental Assistance Program so that about 2,400 more households can get rental assistance and more funding to build affordable housing through the Housing FLEX fund and Housing Trust Fund.
They also want to start a $5 million pilot program that would support more housing inspections in municipalities. These inspections would occur regularly, without the need for a tenant complaint, said Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities.
Land use reform
The Planning and Development Committee will also likely see proposals for land-use reform that aim to increase affordability.
One, pushed by the group Desegregate CT, calls for rewards for towns that increase density around certain transit stations. The group’s “Work Live Ride” proposal includes financial incentives and technical assistance for towns that zone for more residential density near transit stations.
The group conducted walk audits over the past year to hone the legislation, director Pete Harrison said.
“We think this is a really good start to changing the mindset in Connecticut,” he said. “We can solve big problems, and we can have a really positive vision of what Connecticut can be.”
A coalition of groups called Growing Together Connecticut will also push for what’s called “fair share,” or a zoning proposal that would require towns to plan and zone for more affordable housing based on the needs of the region.
Growing Together Connecticut, a consortium of about 45 advocacy groups, faith leaders and housing experts, held a press conference Tuesday to announce its proposals for several housing-related measures. The proposals included another attempt to pass a “fair share” law.
“Connecticut is one of the most expensive places to find housing in the country,” Boggs said in a press release late last year. “We are also one of the most segregated places in the country.”
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.
Lawmakers may also discuss one of the state’s existing housing laws, known as 8-30g. The law offers legal remedies to affordable housing developers in towns that have less than 10% of their housing stock designated affordable.
The law flips the burden of proof. If a local zoning board turns down an application that is 8-30g compliant, the local commission has to prove that the denial was related to 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.
Last session saw the proposal of a law that would mandate a study of 8-30g. Opponents said it was an attack on the law, which came under fire during the gubernatorial election from Republican nominee Bob Stefanowski.
The options are still open for this session, Luxenberg said.
“My view is that Connecticut has a moral and practical imperative to do anything and everything possible to create more affordable housing in every city and town in Connecticut,” he said.
CT Mirror staff writer Jenna Carlesso contributed to this report.