Zoning approaches to affordable housing discussed
Long public hearing focuses on two bills
A bill that advocates say could complement one of the state’s most productive affordable housing laws was discussed Tuesday in Hartford alongside another they say would detract from it.
The public hearing, which drew spoken comment from a list of almost 300 people and more than twice that many in written testimony, included eight bills brought before the legislature’s Housing Committee. The hearing began at 11 a.m. and was still continuing as of 8 p.m.
Ever-present in the background of the hours-long discussion — and sometimes front and center — was statute 8-30g, the controversial 33-year-old law that makes it possible for developers to get around local zoning restrictions by suing the town if their plans for affordable housing are rejected. The burden of proof in such cases shifts to the municipality to show the risk to public health or safety outweighs the need for affordable housing.
Municipalities are beholden to the requirements of 8-30g until 10% of their housing stock is deed-restricted at the state definition of affordable — or until they build enough units to qualify for a four-year moratorium. The most recent data from the state Department of Housing shows only 31 municipalities currently meet the 10% threshold. In southeastern Connecticut, there are just three: New London, Norwich and Groton.
One bill raised by the Democrat-dominated committee, known as the “Fair Share” approach, would go further than 8-30g by assessing the overall housing need and then putting a specific number on how
many units each community must produce to be in compliance.
A bill raised by the legislature’s Republican leadership, including state Rep. Devin Carney of Old Lyme, would expand the types of housing that count toward the 10% threshold. The bill specifies properties that are affordable to lower-income households — but not deed-restricted to remain that way for a certain number of years — would be included. Known as naturally occurring affordable housing, the term refers to homes that households in lower income brackets can afford to buy or rent without help from the government.
The most vocal detractors of 8-30g over the years and at Tuesday’s hearing came from Fairfield County, where opponents say a one-size-fits-all approach to zoning for affordability strips local control, results in large developments and fails to recognize the factors that make each of the state’s 169 cities and towns so different from one another.
Proponents such as attorneys Tim Hollister of the Hartford-based Hinckley Allen law firm and Raphael Podolsky of Connecticut Legal Services argue that the statute is the most critical one in the books when it comes to creating affordable housing. Both men were involved in crafting and then updating the legislation.
Hollister told lawmakers 8-30g has generated 8,500 units of affordable housing since its implementation in 1990.
Fair Share method
The “fair share” method is based on a model in New Jersey credited with creating more than 60,000 affordable homes since it began in 1980. In written testimony, the executive director of that state’s Fair Share Housing Center said the law is on track to produce more than 50,000 additional units over the next decade.
In Connecticut, proponents led by the Hartford-based Open Communities Alliance are hoping to create 140,000 affordable housing units over 10 years. They say that would get the state much closer to the amount necessary to meet the needs of renters and homebuyers who make the least amount of money and spend too much of it on housing.
The Fair Share bill would require the state Office of Policy and Management to work with state agencies responsible for housing and community development to figure out how many units each city and town must build so that there’s enough affordable housing for those who need it. The towns would have to decide how to achieve the goal within 10 years.
The alliance estimates there are 10,200 households in the lowest-income brackets in New London County that are spending more than 50% of their income on housing-related expenses.
Numbers calculated by the alliance in 2020 show the “fair share” of affordable housing units assigned to towns in the southeastern Connecticut region could range from 311 units in Salem to 937 units in Groton.
A family of four in most of New London County — except in Colchester and Lebanon, where the median income is higher — that makes up to $67,560 per year while spending more than half on housing-related expenses is considered in serious need of affordable housing under the Fair Share methodology.
The Fair Share bill specifies towns that don’t comply would be subject to “default zoning” that would require towns to allow multifamily developments of up to 20 units in areas with public water and sewer access, or smaller-scale developments in other areas as local public health codes permit.
The towns would also open themselves up to lawsuits if they didn’t comply with the requirements.
New London Director of Human Services Jeanne Milstein supported the bill in written testimony on behalf of the New London Human Services Network of municipal and nonprofit agencies across the region.
She said many towns implemented zoning restrictions that “limit or even entirely block” multifamily developments affordable to low- and moderate-income households.
State law requires zoning regulations to encourage the development of housing opportunities for all citizens.
“The proposed bill would provide an impetus for towns to rethink their approach to zoning and open the door to higher-density development, especially near transit,” Milstein wrote. “Without that impetus, there is no reason to believe that the status quo will change. Every new affordable home is an opportunity for a family to thrive. Thriving families earn more, educate their children more, and contribute more to our communities.”
First-year state Sen. Jeff Gordon, R-Woodstock, spoke at the public hearing. He identified himself as the chairman for 15 years of his town’s Planning and Zoning Commission.
“The people of Connecticut know best what is best for the towns in which they live,” he said. “That is local decision making and that is local democracy in action.”
He said the Fair Share framework is not realistic in rural towns without sufficient water and sewer infrastructure, transportation or available jobs.
“Look at what happened in New Jersey with a failed fair share law,” he said. “That law has not worked and is mired in a lot of political and legal debate and quagmires.”
New Jersey Fair Share Housing Center executive director Adam Gordon in his testimony said shortfalls earlier in the program’s history included allowing wealthy towns to buy out half of their obligations, which was banned in 2008. He said the Council on Affordable Housing, which was in charge of the program, passed rules that were twice found unconstitutional between 1999 and 2015 and “generally stopped functioning.” That’s when administrative matters were transferred to trial courts for enforcement.
Gordon acknowledged the controversy but pointed to the creation of a significant amount of affordable housing that has had a dramatic impact on the people living there, helping to desegregate housing in the state and promoting economic development.
“Not surprisingly, businesses see New Jersey as an attractive place to launch and grow,” he said. He cited a $1 billion plan from Netflix to build a production facility with 1,500 jobs in Monmouth County and Campbell Soup’s decision to transfer key operations and jobs from Connecticut to New Jersey.
GOP bill focuses on “naturally occurring housing”
Gordon, the state senator from Woodstock, said the bill put forth by the Republican Caucus “is a step in the right direction” by making it easier for towns to reach the 10% threshold for exemption from 8-30g through the inclusion of naturally occurring affordable housing.
“Connecticut’s definition of affordable housing is strict and very difficult to meet, especially for small rural towns,” he said.
A development is considered affordable under 8-30g when at least 30% of the units are set aside — by deed restriction — for households making less than 80% or 60% of the area median income.
For most of New London County, the median income is $102,700. That means a family of four would have to make less than $90,080 at the low-income level or $67,560 at the very low-income level to qualify.
Housing that isn’t deed-restricted but falls within affordable levels naturally is the type the Republicans are looking to add to the 8-30g exemption calculation.
But affordable housing advocate Sean Ghio, senior policy adviser for the Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities, in his testimony said the Republicans’ bill would “neither create nor preserve a single affordable home.”
Instead, he said, including naturally occurring affordable housing would lead to towns earning a temporary exemption from 8-30g without doing anything to help ease the “severe housing cost burden of their residents or any of the 1 in 7 Connecticut households that spends more than half their income on housing costs.”
That means identifying naturally affordable housing as affordable by state standards wouldn’t help the 10,200 New London County households in the lowest-income brackets who can’t find housing they can afford within the existing stock, no matter what it’s called.
Podolsky, the attorney and lobbyist, said the 10% threshold would need to be increased if naturally occurring affordable housing were factored into the equation. Otherwise, neither the supply nor demand changes.
He said the intent of 8-30g is to be proactive. It’s the cities and towns that actively seek out developers they can work with — instead of fighting the ones that come to them — that are able to build enough affordable units on their own terms to get exempted from 8-30g.
“To me, it’s a really good system,” Podolsky said. “I understand why people don’t like it. I understand there’s a risk that you get the wrong kind of housing. I do understand that. But I think by and large the track record has been pretty good.”