A new analysis scores New London County towns’ affordable housing plans, on average, a 2.5 out of 5, citing a need for more consideration of diverse affordable housing committees and concrete steps to increase affordable housing.
The report, which was released earlier this month, noted several high notes in the plans, including recommendations to establish affordable housing trust funds and ease restrictions on accessory dwelling units, and commended a couple of municipalities that already offer higher numbers of affordable housing units.
None of the plans offered information on the diversity of the affordable housing committees that created them, and only a few mentioned ties between institutional racism and access to affordable housing. Many also didn’t have concrete timelines for accomplishing action items, according to the report from the Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut, Desegregate Connecticut and the Regional Plan Association.
“Without accountability to a timeframe, there is significant risk that these plans remain just that — a plan — and will not translate into meaningful action,” the report said.
The analysis examined the planning processes, quality of housing needs assessments and action items, and implementation plans. A 2017 law required towns to submit the plans to the state in summer 2022, although more than half of Connecticut’s towns missed the deadline.
In New London County, only Griswold had not sent in its plan to the state Office of Policy and Management, according to the report. Griswold First Selectman Dana Bennett didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment.
Ledyard had the highest score in the county with 3.5. Stonington got the lowest score at 1.5.
“It’s not an exercise to call communities out, it’s an exercise to call communities in,” said Pete Harrison, director of Desegregate CT. “We know there are pro-homes people in every community. We want to highlight the good work that some of these towns are doing and identify where there needs to be much larger action.”
Fairfield County towns also had an average of 2.5 out of 5 on a similar report issued last year. Stamford was the highest ranked, with a 4 out of 5. Sherman and New Fairfield scored 1 out of 5.
The scorecards aim to help towns work together and offer examples of which municipalities have ideas that might work well to increase the affordable housing stock, the housing experts said.
New London County has several small towns that have fewer resources than the state’s larger cities and suburbs. The scorecards didn’t account for this and didn’t include a measure of how much affordable housing towns already had, housing experts who worked on the report said.
New London and Norwich have higher percentages of housing that’s designated affordable in the region, but scored in the middle of the pack on the report. The affordable housing initiatives that had already been undertaken and were not included in the plan weren’t part of the analysis.
A 2017 law, known as 8-30j, required that towns create local affordable housing plans by 2022. During the last legislative session, some lawmakers who objected to measures that would reform zoning laws statewide said they wanted to see how the plans were implemented locally before pushing forward statewide changes.
Connecticut lacks tens of thousands of units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. Housing experts have said that much of the problem is because of restrictive local zoning ordinances that make it difficult to build the multifamily apartments that tend to be more affordable to people with lower incomes.
In New London County, over a quarter of homeowners and almost half of renters spend 30% or more of their incomes on housing costs, according to the report.
In past legislative sessions, lawmakers have considered a couple of measures that would reform zoning across the state to make it easier to build more apartments. But they’ve lacked political support to get through a floor vote.
Opponents of this type of reform have said it would dilute local control and force a one-size-fits-all approach on towns that have unique needs.
The 2017 law allowed municipalities to decide how they would meet the affordable housing need.
“This is an interesting place where the state has set in place a requirement for towns to create these plans,” said Melissa Kaplan-Macey, chief initiative officer at the Center for Housing Opportunity. “There isn’t necessarily any stick associated with it … this is kind of the sweet spot where towns are required to create a local affordable housing plan. I think this is really where the rubber meets the road.”
Plans in Groton, East Lyme, Ledyard, New London, North Stonington, Stonington, Voluntown and Waterford recommended setting up affordable housing trust funds. Lyme already has a trust fund, according to the report. Affordable housing trust funds can provide grants or gap financing for affordable housing developments. They can be funded in a variety of ways including through real estate taxes, state money, or other fees.
Old Lyme’s plan recommended working more closely with affordable housing nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity or the HOPE Partnership, according to the report.
Bozrah’s plan included recommendations that homeowners be allowed to rent accessory dwelling units to non-family members, a shift from existing municipal policy. Accessory dwelling units are additional residential dwellings that can be attached to or stand alone on a lot alongside a single-family home.
Montville is also considering adjusting its accessory dwelling unit regulations. The town opted out of a 2021 law that set statewide standards for such units so that officials could set local requirements, said Liz Burdick, director of land use and development for the town of Montville.
The town is considering adjusting parking requirements and minimum lot sizes to make development easier, Burdick said.
In 2018, Montville also started allowing residential development on properties along Route 32, which has easy access to water, sewage and fiber optic lines. It’s led to the creation of dozens of new housing units, Burdick said.
“We’ve already provided mechanisms to bring affordable housing in, I just think we can do more,” she added.
Ledyard, which had the highest score on the new report, is working on expanding access to water and sewage lines to allow more dense development, Mayor Fred Allyn said.
“One of the things that Ledyard struggles with is that about 12% of our town has public sewer and the rest is septic,” Allyn said. “The ground soils here in Ledyard are considered poor to moderate. It has posed a challenge in the past in terms of trying to get development done.”
Officials from small towns across the state have said that lack of access to water and sewer has made it difficult to develop more residential density.
Ledyard officials are also looking at other forms of affordable housing such as vouchers that offer monthly rent assistance and government mortgage loan programs to encourage homeownership, Allyn said.
“I think that municipalities made a great effort with not a lot of support,” said Beth Sabilia, director of the Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity of Eastern Connecticut. “What sticks out to me is that there’s a lot of actionable pieces in there.”
Sabilia added that she hopes the next time towns work on their plans, they are able to collaborate regionally and get ideas from other towns about what is working and what isn’t.
“I think it creates a really important framework that really does help us move forward as a state,” Kaplan-Macey said.
Harrison said that although there are several positive points — some of the developments in Ledyard and Montville especially — there are still improvements to be made.
“You can tell which towns really took it seriously and earnestly and which towns didn’t,” Harrison said. “And even within the communities that were earnest about it, there were some limitations about the scale, the concrete steps and actions.”
He added that very few towns considered the environmental impacts of town planning. They weren’t scored on it because 8-30j doesn’t have that requirement, he added.
As the state continues to see the impact of climate change, he said there may be more people moving to Connecticut from states that grow too warm or have more natural disasters. He added that he hopes towns will consider climate change and additional population growth in future plans.
Harrison said housing groups will continue going county-by-county to evaluate the affordable housing plans.
He said he hopes the analyses will help the state decide where to allocate resources and how to offer more technical support to towns that have small planning staff. State lawmakers already offered additional funding to the state Office of Responsible Growth, part of a push from Desegregate CT, and he hopes to see that continue.
Allyn and Burdick said they think more needs to be done to show town residents that “affordable housing” doesn’t necessarily mean high rises or public housing towers. It can come in many forms, they said.
“‘Affordable housing’ is a term that has not a positive thought for most people,” Allyn said. “I truly think that we should use the term ‘workforce housing’ because that’s really what it is. When you think about people who are working in the shipyard at Electric Boat, they’re your everyday people, your friends, your neighbors, and they could be living in workforce housing.”
Gov. Ned Lamont and others touted the need for workforce housing during the last legislative session to incentivize businesses to come to Connecticut and offer affordable places for existing employers.
Developing more housing and changing zoning regulations may be an incremental process, Burdick said.
She said someone once gave her a pink wand topped with a star. She keeps it in her office and wishes she could solve all the planning challenges with a wave of the wand, she said.
“I wish I could wave that and make everything so, but what we do is just persist,” she said. “We keep at it.”