As Connecticut grapples with how to add affordable housing, the next few years will likely bring questions about how best to preserve the stock that already exists.
The state is at risk of losing more than 5,000 affordable housing units in the next five years, according to estimates from the National Housing Preservation Database.
Rules that require certain housing units to be rented at affordable rates will expire on thousands of units, while other units are likely to fall into disrepair and become unsafe.
The preservation of affordable housing tends to grab less attention than other issues related to the state’s housing stock, but it’s an important piece of the conversation as Connecticut looks to expand the number of affordable units, housing experts said. The state lacks tens of thousands of units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters.
“Affordable housing adds to the fabric of the community, it adds to the diversity of the community,” said Renee Dobos, chief operating officer at the development group Connecticut Housing Partners. “At the end of the day, if we didn’t have affordable housing, we would have a homelessness crisis. It’s really important for the vibrancy of our entire state to have affordable housing.”
Preservation has increasingly become a national point of concern because the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, the country’s largest program for financing affordable housing developments, is more than 30 years old.
The program requires that for all properties financed after 1990, at least 20% of the units are designated affordable for at least 30 years. States can incentivize or require longer periods of affordability.
More and more properties nationally are at risk of losing their affordability requirements as the 30-year requirement expires, said Andrew Aurand, senior vice president for research at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Over the next five years, about 158,800 units in the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program are at risk of expiring.
With all sources considered, the nation is at risk of losing more than 327,500 units of affordable housing in the next five years, according to the preservation database.
“What happens to those low-income residents who are currently in those buildings?,” Aurand said. “We are very concerned about that, particularly for the residents who have the lowest incomes. There really are very few options, and they would have a very difficult time finding other housing.”
It’s of particular concern in areas with tight housing markets, where developers might be incentivized to sell the property or increase rents, Aurand added.
Connecticut’s Housing Finance Authority typically works with developers to ensure that the units remain affordable, said Nandini Natarajan, chief executive officer at the finance authority.
Even if properties are able to maintain their affordability restrictions, many of them need renovations in order to be livable, Aurand said.
“There’s still an issue in terms of quality of those buildings,” he said. “They may be affordable, but they may still need some reinvestment.”
This year alone, about 300 of the state's low-income housing tax credit units are set to lose affordability requirements. By 2033, more than 5,000 are scheduled to expire, according to data from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.
The bulk of those units are in larger cities such as New Haven, Stamford and Bridgeport, data show.
A couple of years ago, the finance authority adopted a preservation policy so staffers can work with property owners to preserve the housing affordability, Natarajan said.
“We would be asking them, what are you planning on doing with the property? Are you going to own it for the long term? Are you planning on selling it?" she said.
The finance authority can offer financial incentives to help owners restore their properties in exchange for extended affordability, Natarajan said.
And the finance authority gives additional points during the application process for developers who promise to preserve the affordability requirements for 50 years, she added.
In a tight housing market like Connecticut’s where rents have risen in recent months, whether a developer wants to keep the affordability requirements may come down to whether their organization is driven by mission or money, said Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities.
“When those affordability restrictions expire, and you’re in a very tight housing market, it makes sense that certain developers wouldn’t extend those restrictions,” Ghio said.
Natarajan said that many of the developers the finance authority works with are nonprofits like Dobos’ organization, Connecticut Housing Partners.
Developers typically tap into funds from additional sources outside the federal tax credit program in order to make the financing work, Dobos said. The state has a couple of programs including the FLEX and Housing Trust funds as well as some loan programs. There are also federal financing programs available.
“I need as much money as I can,” Dobos said. “I need to build a capital stack that has multiple funding sources. It’s not just one.”
When Dobos’ group’s properties come up on their affordability requirements, they take the opportunity to renovate. The properties are spread across several cities including Bridgeport, Stamford and Trumbull.
“We do everything — windows, new flooring, possible infrastructure issues,” she said. “It’s really like a gut rehab because it needs to last another 20 years.”
Some towns are working toward preserving aging housing stock as well. For example, Fairfield has a program funded with federal money that rehabilitates small multi-family apartment buildings.
They offer this as a no-interest, declining balance loan, said Mark Barnhart, director of the town’s Office of Community & Economic Development.
In exchange for participation in the program, landlords agree to restrict certain units as affordable for the life of the loan — typically about 40 years, Barnhart said. After the loan ends, landlords can enter into one-year contracts with the local housing authority to keep the housing affordable.
“It works out well for the investor, and we're providing much-needed housing units for folks with vouchers,” he said.
The program has been ongoing for several years and has been of particular interest to landlords who use it to purchase and rehabilitate aging housing, although interest has waned more recently.
“We had some limited interest in it, and it's just dissipated over time,” Barnhart said. “It was at one point very active, but there has been less and less interest.”
The town has since been focused more on the rehabilitation of housing that was damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Some of the housing is set aside as affordable, he said.
Many town officials may not be aware of the issue, said Melissa Kaplan-Macey, Connecticut director of the Regional Plan Association. If affordability requirements expire, it would affect a municipality’s count toward 8-30g, the state law that encourages affordable housing in towns. The law offers court remedies to developers whose affordable housing applications are denied. Towns that have at least 10% of their housing stock set aside as affordable are exempt.
The affordable housing law is designed to increase Connecticut’s deed-restricted affordable housing stock, meaning housing that is financed at least in part by the government. It includes developments built under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and housing choice vouchers, among other programs.
“I would guess that that would be very frustrating,” Kaplan-Macey said. “It would seem that towns would be anxious to preserve that housing.”
Some have pointed to the expirations as proof of the need to reform 8-30g. Republicans proposed such a measure this session, which housing advocates opposed.
Christie Stewart, senior adviser at the Center for Housing Opportunity, said that the state needs a stronger response to housing preservation.
The state Department of Housing has a program to repair crumbling foundations, a problem found in thousands of homes in north central and northeastern Connecticut. It also has lead paint remediation, among other programs.
But it’s not on the scale the state needs to completely solve the housing preservation issue, Stewart said. It’s typically cheaper to repair an existing house than to build anew, she said.
“The naturally occurring stock tends to be old and in need of capital repair, and if we can’t keep up with those capital needs, it’s never going to get replaced with housing that is going to be as affordable as what was there,” Stewart said.
Correction: Christie Stewart is the senior adviser at the Center for Housing Opportunity. A previous version of this article misstated her title.