House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, speak with the media on the floor of the House after Gov. Ned Lamont's State of the State speech on Jan. 4, 2023. Stephen Busemeyer / CT Mirror

A group of state lawmakers, local leaders and housing and planning officials on Monday discussed Connecticut’s affordable housing problem during the first meeting of a working group created last session under the housing omnibus bill.

Formerly Senate Bill 998, now Public Act 23-207, established the group to examine the need for more affordable housing in Connecticut and propose solutions to meet that need. The bill was controversial, and passed in the final hours of the session with statewide zoning changes removed.

Monday’s introductory meeting touched on a wide range of topics including the state’s housing voucher program, a lack of single-family starter homes, transportation and zoning.

“We all know that housing is at the core of all of our life experiences,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “But at a societal level we know it has significant implications for lots of other issues that we deal with as a matter of public policy.”

Those issues include education, criminal justice and environmental protection, among others, Rojas said. Rojas and other legislative leadership said Monday they’d like to use the group to come up with legislation that helps address the lack of affordable housing in Connecticut.

Affordable housing has been a hot topic in the state for years, as thousands struggle to find a place they can afford to live. The problem worsened during the pandemic when rent costs rose, and many lost income.

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, referred to affordable housing as “the biggest issue” to tackle in Connecticut and said he wants to see a compromise that can lead to legislative change out of the roundtable group.

“‘Getting to the yes is very important to me,” Duff said.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that Connecticut lacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters.

The 24-member affordable housing roundtable group is mandated to examine existing housing policies and programs and new solutions. The law says they should look at the possibility of converting state properties into affordable housing or converting commercial properties such as hotel or malls into residential buildings, as well as successful models from other states, among other housing-related topics.

Rojas said during Monday’s meeting that the group would have presentations from subject matter experts and state officials on best practices and existing programs. He specifically mentioned the voucher system in Connecticut, which Hearst Connecticut Media investigated last year and found that many go unused.

“What are the opportunities and limitations that exist there?,” Rojas said. “ … Where are they supposed to go even if they have a voucher?”

Rudy Marconi, first selectman in Ridgefield, said he wanted to be sure that transportation gets discussed by the group. He also said he didn’t want to see a one-size-fits-all approach.

“The issue is when we have people move into the town, we don’t have the transportation to get them back to their jobs,” Marconi said.

Transit-oriented development was one of the statewide zoning reform proposals discussed during the recent legislative session. The proposal, more commonly known as Work, Live, Ride, would have offered certain state infrastructure funding to towns that opt to increase residential density near train and bus stations.

While the proposal didn’t get a vote on the House or Senate floor, legislators said in post-session interviews that they’re interested in pursuing that as an option in the next session.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said some small towns struggle with wastewater capacity when trying to build more multi-family housing.

Nandini Natarajan, chief executive officer of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, said the issue is decades of underbuilding new housing.

The state has some programs to help developers build affordable housing and to help residents become homeowners, and the legislature approved a bonding package with nearly $1 billion over two years to help fund housing-related programs and initiatives.

Legislators said Monday that while they’d like to see proposals by the start of the session early next year, they aren’t in a rush. They want to determine the best assessment to see how much and what types of affordable housing are needed as well as consider proposals from group members.

The housing omnibus law also includes a provision that requires a regional assessment of affordable housing needs and for the state to come up with a methodology for determining how many units each town would need to build to meet that need. The method is known as fair share, although the legislature didn’t pass any mandates that towns actually build those units.

The fair share proposal was one of several controversial housing proposals considered during the last session. Opponents said it was onerous, diluted local control and would impose a uniform approach on towns that have unique needs.

Housing Committee co-chair Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said Monday she wants to find proposals that can pass and avoid controversy.

“I want to be sure that we are actually putting out ideas out there that can actually move the needle and not just cause a lot of rancor that often results in this building when affordable housing or housing proposals are put forth before the legislature,” Moore 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.