House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, third from right, and other legislators chat a few minutes before the session ends on June 7, 2023. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Weeks after lawmakers passed on zoning reform measures meant to help increase the state’s affordable housing stock, some officials are already talking about how to make progress on the issues in future legislative sessions.

Advocates pushing for more affordable and high density housing have long noted that most towns’ emphasis on single-family housing and aversion to multi-family dwellings have made it more difficult for people of color to live in certain neighborhoods. Restrictive zoning ordinances have been tied to unaffordable housing and segregation in Connecticut.

During the most recent legislative session, many advocates expected that lawmakers would address this complicated problem of undoing the harm caused by policies established years ago. But no meaningful zoning reform was passed this session.

And in the last days of the session, legislative leadership announced that they wouldn’t vote on measures that would have required changes to zoning policy or used financial incentives to push towns to plan and zone for more residential density and affordability.

But that doesn’t mean the issues won’t be back before lawmakers in the future.

Transit-oriented development proposals that would have towns increase residential density near train and bus stations may be back in 2024. Another proposal to introduce mandates that towns plan and zone for a set number of units based on the regional need for affordable housing may take a bit longer — likely waiting until 2025, lawmakers said.

The decisions to pass over the so-called fair share measure and the Work, Live, Ride bill marked a blow for housing advocates in Connecticut and a win for many Republicans and moderate Democrats who pushed back against the notion of statewide reform, claiming the proposals would impose a one-size-fits all solution that wouldn’t work for every town and would dilute local control.

Everybody said they support affordable housing,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “My Republican colleagues have said it over and over. So alright, let’s get something done here.”

He’s examining fair share and transit-oriented development. He also wants to look at existing building codes and other ways to make it cheaper to develop more housing.

Advocates and some Democratic lawmakers say that what did pass this session could create an easier path to getting zoning reform through in Connecticut.

Fair share

After weeks of negotiating, lawmakers removed what were termed fair share mandates from Senate Bill 998, the housing omnibus bill. A fair share law would have the state assess the regional need for affordable housing, come up with a methodology to divide up that need, and require each town to plan and zone for a set number of units.

Lamont has signed the omnibus bill into law.

Connecticut’s legislation still asks the state to assess and divide the need, but does not require towns to make any changes. Rojas led the effort to create the housing omnibus bill and said knowing the number required of each municipality may be helpful for future zoning reform.

“Part of the experience of this session is what is that number? It’s a big unknown for a lot of my colleagues,” Rojas said.

Analysis required under the legislation would need to be ready near the end of 2024, and Rojas said that meant further action likely wouldn’t occur until 2025. The bill also creates an affordable housing roundtable that consists of 24 members, including Rojas and other members of the legislature.

Several lawmakers said they wanted to see what recommendations the group makes before moving forward with zoning reform. The group’s findings and recommendations would come out annually beginning Jan. 1, 2024.

“We’re in the midst of the conversations to determine sort of the full plan for next steps,” said Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, one of the leading groups that advocated for fair share. “I think in the immediate term, we want to make sure that the pieces of fair share that were passed are implemented appropriately.”

Boggs added that her group planned to work at the local level in the coming months to advocate for changes in individual towns. Rojas also plans to visit towns to meet with local officials and other lawmakers in the coming months.

He said he wants to hear their concerns and explain away any misinformation, he said.

“This whole conversation around local control is one that I appreciate but is one that is a distraction too,” he said.  “We’re not trying to dictate totally what towns do … There is a role for the state to play in housing policy, but also recognizing that local control has a role.”

Housing co-chair Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said she was surprised by the debate on the bill that ultimately passed, much of which focused on mandates that weren’t included, she said. She added that she hopes to build on the momentum started this session.

“You start building on it,” she said. “I think this bill is one of those things that you can build on.”

Her co-chair, Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, said the session included several wins for housing, including more funding to build affordable housing, and tenants’ rights measures.

“It’s a significant step in the right direction,” Luxenberg said. “Because of this legislation, no one is going to be able to hide or shirk responsibility anymore and say we don’t know how many units we need. Would I have liked to do more? Absolutely. But this is a major step, and when you’re in government, you have to focus on the art of what’s possible.”

Even without the mandates, the vote in the House was one of the closest of the session with 78 in favor, just four more than it needed to pass. Senate debate lasted more than nine hours.

Republicans and opponents said it marked the first step toward major zoning changes and feared the end of single-family zoning statewide.

Planning and Development Committee ranking member Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said he thinks there is enough bipartisan opposition that the bill won’t get through.

“I think it would be a historically bad proposal,” he said.

Housing Committee ranking member Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe, said he wants to see more input from Republicans and moderate Democrats on housing proposals next year. He also wants to work on reforms to existing affordable housing law and the housing choice voucher program.

“The support isn’t there,” Scott said. “And again, this is not just the Fairfield County thing. It’s not a Democrat or Republican thing. … It’s too big of a step, I think, to take local control away.”

He added that it may be more difficult to get controversial legislation passed during an election year for legislators.

Rojas said that he wants to also look at angles outside of fair share in coming sessions.

Transit-oriented development

The housing omnibus bill included a measure that strengthened the state’s Office of Responsible Growth and put its existence into statute. Previously, it had existed only under a gubernatorial executive order.

The office is integral to a proposal known as Work, Live, Ride, that was pushed by Desegregate Connecticut this session. Their proposal would have granted certain infrastructure funding to towns that opt to increase residential density near public transit, with a sliding scale for affordability.

Strengthening the Office of Responsible Growth made up much of the expected cost to the state proposed under Work, Live, Ride. Because the cost was folded into the most recent legislative session, the proposal would likely have less cost if it were proposed in future sessions.

The measure didn’t get a vote on the House or Senate floor, which some advocates have tied to poor timing — they think lawmakers waited too long to call the bill.

“We felt really confident coming into the session that our bill was really teed up well to be a big victory but still manageable enough to actually pass,” said Pete Harrison, Desegregate CT director.

The group plans to engage in outreach efforts in the coming months to talk to residents, particularly in Fairfield County, about development in their towns.

Planning and Development Committee co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, said she’s hopeful that another push to improve affordable housing in Connecticut will come through next session — possibly something similar to Work, Live, Ride, she said.

She added that she thinks that people against some of the proposals may not have understood the “dire situation,” with the lack of affordable housing. There was also misunderstanding about what towns would have to do, she said, adding that lawmakers tried to reach a compromise.

“The challenge is when you have people who continue to say no to everything, then you don’t get to yes on anything,” Kavros DeGraw said.

Planning and Development Committee co-chair Sen. MD Rahman, D-Manchester, said he wanted to look at ways to increase affordable housing next session, including transit-oriented development because he thinks it will help the workforce.

“There are so many things we need to do,” Rahman said. “But the three things I’m heavily focused on are cost savings, cost savings, cost savings — for our seniors, for our young, for our workforce. For everyone.”

But some lawmakers say the bill isn’t workable.

Fazio, a Planning and Development ranking member, said towns need more flexibility and “carrots,” or incentives, to increase affordable housing, rather than what many viewed as punishments.

He added that the state’s 8-30g law needs to be changed. The law, which offers court remedies to developers whose affordable housing proposals are denied in towns with less than 10% deed-restricted affordable housing, has drawn political ire in recent years. 

“My goal is to protect home rule and local input, but I also think we should be trying to increase the affordable housing stock,” Fazio said.

He added that another approach he hopes to tackle next session would be to allow greater flexibility for use of housing choice vouchers.

The group CT 169 Strong opposed the zoning reform initiatives including Work, Live, Ride, saying that offering towns that opt in to transit-oriented development a priority for grant funding meant other towns would lose out on that money. 

“‘Work Live Ride’ is Build Big and Lease: a state imposed zoning override for the enrichment of corporate landlord interests and housing developers and loss of infrastructure funding to our municipalities that do not opt in,” the group’s website says in suggested text to send to legislators.

Despite the lack of zoning reform passed in the session, Kavros DeGraw said she’s ready to move forward.

“You live to fight another day,” she said.

Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from 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.