Pete Harrison, Director of DesegregateCT, gives a speech about why the Work Live Ride proposal is the key to promoting economic prosperity, racial inclusivity, and environmental sustainability in Connecticut. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

A new legislative proposal would encourage increased housing density near transit stations, one of the major pushes for zoning reform in Connecticut this legislative session.

The proposal is based on a land-use policy called transit-oriented communities. It aims to encourage towns to zone for more housing within a half mile of train and bus stations so residents can easily walk there, experts and advocates from the group Desegregate CT said at a press conference Monday.

Under the proposal, towns that opt in would have access to state money for infrastructure improvements such as bike infrastructure, pedestrian safety measures or remediation for “brownfields,” or sites such as former gas stations or laundromats that have been polluted.

Communities that want to create a transit-oriented community district would work with the state’s Office of Responsible Growth to plan and design the district. The proposal also encourages towns to build “deeply affordable” housing in the transit-oriented communities, Desegregate CT director Pete Harrison said Monday.

“We think ultimately ‘Work, Live, Ride’ is about creating access to jobs, more affordable homes and safer streets,” Harrison said, using the phrase advocates use to refer to the measure.

This year’s proposal, a modified version of a bill that failed last session, would use financial incentives to encourage towns to zone for housing, rather than require it. This significant shift came from feedback Desegregate CT received while members conducted “walk-through audits” to meet with town residents and see their housing challenges in person.

Zoning reform has long been a point of contention in Connecticut politics.

Opponents of zoning reform laws have said that the measures erode local control and impose one-size-fits-all solutions on towns that have unique challenges. Last year, many local leaders and state lawmakers, particularly from Fairfield County, opposed zoning reform legislation, including a proposal to require more density near transit stations.

The state lacks tens of thousands of units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters, and experts have said much of that is attributable to local zoning policies that restrict the number of apartments that can be built in many towns. Advocates have said a statewide approach is needed to solve this issue.

Alan Cavagnaro, South Windsor Planning and Zoning Commissioner, and Desegregate CT Campaign Coordinator, talks about the importance of the ‘Work Live Ride’ proposal for the younger generation on Jan. 23, 2023 at GastroPark. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

“It’s simple,” said Sean Ghio, policy director at the Center for Strong Communities. “We need more homes in Connecticut. We’ve lived under a local planning and zoning regime for decades now of slow housing growth. We are now suffering the consequences of that.”

Apartments tend to be more affordable to people with low incomes who may not have the wealth needed for a down payment on a house.

Transit-oriented communities is a land-use policy that establishes walkable neighborhoods with homes, shops and restaurants, among other businesses, all near public transportation. It encourages use of public transit, which benefits the environment. 

It also benefits people with low incomes, who also are less likely to have cars, by allowing them to live near transportation. Transit-oriented communities have grown more popular recently in states such as New Jersey and California.

“We are all about supporting walkability and accessibility in our community,” said Jay Stange, coordinator of the Transport Hartford Academy through the Center for Latino Progress. “We need better transit service and more walkable communities. And we need mixed income housing, which will allow people to live closer to where they get services, closer to where they work, and closer to where they go to school.”

Tate Norden, owner of GastroPark in West Hartford, spoke at the conference, which took place at his business. He said the proposal would encourage more people to come to businesses like his that are near transit.

A CTfastrak station is visible from the window of GastroPark’s building.

Connecticut also needs more housing so families can live in places where they spend only up to a third of their incomes on rent, advocates said. About 65% of families in Connecticut struggle to pay their daily expenses, said Eli Sabin, legislative coordinator at Connecticut Voices for Children.

“We’ve got to be doing everything we can to build more housing, especially in smart locations near transit, where people can save money on gas, on car insurance, on a car payment by using public transportation or by walking or biking to get around,” Sabin said.

Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford, said she’d push for the bills, which would benefit towns like West Hartford. The town already has a transit-oriented district in place.

It’s Desegregate CT’s second try at a statewide transit-oriented development policy, although this year’s has significant changes. Last year’s had a public hearing but no committee vote through the Planning and Development Committee.

Desegregate CT is a program of the Regional Plan Association. 

In 2020, before it became a part of RPA, Desegregate CT successfully advocated for a policy that required towns to allow accessible dwelling units, or “granny pods,” with an opt out option. The original bill also included a transit-oriented development policy, although that language was scrapped before passage.

The Desegregate CT proposal is one of at least two zoning reform bills expected to come up this session. The other is a proposal that would implement a “fair share” law, which would require towns to plan and zone for a certain amount of affordable housing based on the needs of their region.

“Work, Live, Ride is a bet on the future of Connecticut,” Harrison said. “It’s a bet that local governments and the state can work together to create accessible jobs, affordable homes and safer streets. It’s a bet that we can improve the lives of homeowners and home renters living here today. And we can attract a whole bunch of them to come to Connecticut tomorrow.”

A previous version of this article misstated an organization’s name. It is the Regional Plan Association.

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Ginny MonkHousing and Children's Issues Reporter

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter a Report for America corps member. She covers a range of topics including child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021 and covered housing for Hearst Connecticut Media.