One year and one day after a public hearing on zoning policy in Connecticut raised the question of whether housing is a human right, a similar bill — this one encouraging towns to increase residential density near transportation hubs — had a public hearing Wednesday.
Last year’s hearing on a bill backed by advocacy group Desegregate CT was marked by a conversation between then-Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, R-Greenwich, and Alan Cavagnaro, a college student and planning and zoning commissioner for South Windsor.
This year, House Bill 6890, known as “Work Live Ride” and also pushed by Desegregate CT, would use financial incentives to encourage towns to create transit-oriented communities, or walkable neighborhoods within a half mile of train and bus stations.
Transit-oriented development is a land-use concept that encourages increased residential density in neighborhoods that typically include multi-family housing, shopping and dining near transit stations. It’s grown in popularity recently, particularly in California, parts of the Midwest, and Washington, D.C., as well as other cities across the U.S. and internationally.
The idea has gained traction during a legislative session marked by a focus on housing, with mentions in the governor’s proposed budget and in Senate Democrats’ housing priority bill, which got approval from the Housing Committee earlier this month.
Still, zoning reform has been a political hot potato in Connecticut, as many town officials and lawmakers, particularly from Fairfield County, have objected to statewide reform.
Experts have pointed to local zoning ordinances as the primary driver of segregation and barriers to building enough multifamily housing to meet Connecticut’s needs.
“We are not doing enough right now,” Desegregate CT director Pete Harrison said Wednesday, pointing to a need for change in the state.
Under the proposal, towns could opt in and get access to state money for certain infrastructure improvements including expansion of sewer and water services and remediation for “brownfields,” or polluted sites such as former gas stations or cleaners.
The state’s Office of Responsible Growth would assist towns and accept applications regarding transit districts. There is a sliding scale of affordability percentages based on the area’s housing market.
The debate was not without a few contentious moments.
Advocates spoke about the boon such a measure would be to the state by encouraging economic growth, increased use of public transit and more housing in a state that faces a severe lack of housing, especially affordable housing.
“Work Live Ride will be a good start to fixing our issues with the environment, with the housing crisis, with economic inequality, all while allowing towns to have a say in how their districts are planned or whether they even want to participate,” wrote Sydney Elkhay, transit-oriented communities coordinator with Desegregate CT. “It is a bill that promotes local control while also seeking to solve some of the more systemic issues facing our state.”
And opponents repeated objections heard with other statewide zoning reform bills: that it would erode local control and that it was a one-size fits all approach. Another concern cropped up: that the financial incentives would pull funds from towns that don’t opt in to transit-oriented development, particularly funding to clean up brownfields.
“I’m concerned about how we’re really trying to change the look and feel of our 169 towns,” said Maria Weingarten, a co-founder of the group 169 Strong, which argued against the bill. “And I think that when you don’t allow the independent municipalities to come up with what works best for them, you’re creating a situation where they’re all going to be so overburdened with their local taxes.”
It’s the third time Desegregate CT has pushed for bills to encourage residential density around public transit. In 2020, the group included it in its original legislative proposals, but it was scrapped while legislators approved allowing accessible dwelling units, also known as granny pods.
Last year, the group backed a similar proposal that would have mandated certain residential density requirements near transit stations, but the bill did not pass. After months of talking to stakeholders and making key adjustments to the bill, advocates feel they have another shot.
Win Evarts, executive director of The Arc of Connecticut, wrote in support of the bill, saying it encourages local control and takes environmental and social needs into account.
“This will create housing options that fit different income levels and residential needs, which will enable people with disabilities and older citizens to independently remain in communities that they know well,” Evarts said.
Several who spoke against the bill said giving state money to towns that opt-in made it so opting out wasn’t really a viable option.
“You mentioned an opt-in,” said Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin. “It’s sort of holding a gun to somebody’s head and saying, ‘Give me your money, or I’ll shoot you.’ Giving the money is an opt-in. It’s an option. But you’ll get shot. So it’s really not an opt-in.”
Much of the discussion boiled down to a simple question posed by committee member Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield.
“It speaks to the question: ‘How do we grow?’” she said about what types of housing Connecticut needs and the best ways to increase housing stock.
Several young adults, many students, testified in support of the bill. They spoke of how less driving among residents who have easy access to public transit helps the environment, and improved affordability might allow them to stay in the state after school.
“It will promote diversity by diversifying housing options and lowering housing costs across the board,” said Jo Zhou, a law student who lives in Hartford.
Dubitsky repeatedly questioned students who volunteer and intern with Desegregate CT about their relationship to the group and technical portions of the bill.
“I’m asking you what ‘an equitable manner’ means in lines 32 to 36.”
“Do you know what a brownfield is?”
“Do you get paid?”
“How many people work at Desegregate CT?”
Committee co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros-Degraw, D-Avon, thanked one student, Elena Brennan, for her patience with the questioning, saying that legislators are often eager and curious to get information from people who testify.
“Sometimes we ask questions that are not suitable for you. You’re not a lawyer, you didn’t draft the bill,” Kavros-Degraw said.
She also asked Brennan if she could imagine being able to stay in Connecticut after she finishes school.
Brennan said she couldn’t, that she didn’t think she’d be able to afford the house her parents had bought, or even any of the houses on their block.
“Transit is transformative, and it’s really a way for people to stay connected,” Brennan said.
“For me, what’s really special about this bill is the idea that I would be able to afford a small unit near transit to be able to get to work. I mean, that is just kind of the dream.”