The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)
‘The housing issue is in many ways a crisis’
State lawmakers suggest converting vacant strip malls, big-box stores into places to live
HARTFORD — A partial solution to the state’s need for affordable housing is to provide incentives for developers to convert vacant strip malls and bigbox stores into housing for some of the 100,000 workers Connecticut needs, Democrats in the state Senate announced on Thursday.
The multi-prong proposal, discussed in a morning news conference, includes collaborations with towns and cities to create new on under-utilized land; an experimental program to reduce homelessness; and rental aid for dwellers of mobile-home parks.
“We spend a lot of money on early childhood education, we spend a lot of money on secondary education, we spend a lot of money on higher education,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, DNorwalk. “We need to make sure that all that money we invest in our students is well put, so when they graduate they can actually find housing here in the state of Connecticut. We have to have the employees first, and then the employers come in. We’re hundreds of thousands of units below where we need to be on affordable
“We don’t have enough afforable housing in the cities where we already do have some affordable housing. At the same time we need to promote affordable housing in the parts of the state that have never embraced their fair share before and have never embraced the principle that we are really one Connecticut.” Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven
Duff suggested that in the case of reluctant communities, state officials could use state-owned properties for new housing. “There’s lots of parking lots that housing could be built on as well,” he said. “There’re park-andride lots where you could build housing. There are answers.” He said that while the town of Fairfield has recently celebrated several new units built by Habitat for Humanity, those are just a few and “doesn’t even scratch the surface.”
“The housing issue is in many ways a crisis,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “We don’t have enough afforable housing in the cities where we already do have some affordable housing. At the same time we need
to promote affordable housing in the parts of the state that have never embraced their fair share before and have never embraced the principle that we are really one Connecticut.”
State Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, cochairwoman of the legislative Housing Committee, said that housing complaints are the main reason why constuituents reach out to her office. Moore said she expects a variety of other bills aimed at expanding housing opportunities, including a so-called renter’s bill of rights; increasing funding for the state’s Rental Assistance Program; and tax credits for workforce housing.
Duff said that obstacles to converting vacant buildings include local zoning regulations. Sen.
Norm Needleman, D-Essex, who is also the first selectman there, said town government teamed with a nonprofit organization, state officials and a bank to create about 17 units on the second and third floors. “Zoning had to sign on to it, obviously, to allow for that kind of mixed-use development,” Needleman said.
“This is one of the issues where the state needs to partner with municipalities, I think, because there are so many municipal zoning codes that need updating,” Looney said. “But also to update them with a policy goal providing for mixed-use and providing for housing.”
“There’s lots of ways in which we can do this, and we need to partner, but we also need to make sure that the state stands strong in every single community to build affordable housing,” Duff said. “This is not just for Bridgeport, Stamford,
Norwalk, New Haven and the cities. Every community has to do their share of building housing and there is generally, especially along Metro-North, there’re parking lots and other places where we can have those conversations about building some housing.”
First-year state Sen. Herron Gaston, D-Bridgeport, agreed that zoning rules need scrutiny. In the case of a closed Stop & Shop supermarket on Madison Avenue, which has been acquired to convert to a storage space, Gaston, who is assistant chief administrative officer for the city of Bridgeport, said that similar sites could become mixed use. “Perhaps we can have forprofit and nonprofit organizations sort of blending together and then also do some affordable housing on that property,” he said.