Published in The Day
By Elizabeth Regan
As numerous bills addressing housing affordability make their way through the state legislature, advocates say it’s because more people are recognizing the importance of fixing a broken housing system.
Some of those advocates also say the system could benefit from a more cohesive approach to engaging lawmakers and the public in solutions.
The bills represent priorities from those including Gov. Ned Lamont, leadership in the House and Senate, and two grassroots groups hoping to change the state’s housing landscape.
Proposals run the gamut from zoning changes, to a plan that would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to retrofit and remediate old homes and apartment buildings, to piecemeal measures addressing renters’ rights.
Beth Sabilia, director of the new Center for Housing Equity and Opportunity in Eastern Connecticut, said the region needs all the tools it can get to address housing challenges when the demand for affordable places to live outstrips the supply.
“The crush of legislative business is indicative of the fact that housing is an issue, and obviously an urgent issue,” she said.
The center launched last month to develop and promote a housing agenda for the region. Among its priorities is building “public will” in a place where proposals for more houses and apartments often meet resistance.
But Sabilia and others say they see less resistance now than they have in the past.
She cited a poll commissioned by the grassroots group Growing Together Connecticut earlier this year. The survey of 2,562 registered voters by Embold Research found that 73% believe there should be “housing options in every town for residents of all incomes.” The remaining 27% said those who can’t afford market-rate housing in town “need to move somewhere else.”
State Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, co-chairman of the legislature’s Housing Committee, at the time said the poll results signal the end of NIMBYism, referring to “not in my backyard” opposition that often drives away development in suburban and rural towns.
“The era of NIMBY is over in Connecticut,” he said at the press conference, later acknowledging his flair for the dramatic.
For Sabilia, advocacy is about building on consensus.
“In public policy, where we have an agreement, that’s awesome,” she said of the survey findings. “So let’s capitalize on that agreement and put our momentum behind that.”
She said the various bills – which address a wide range of issues and sometimes overlap – can be tough for lawmakers, advocates and the public to keep straight.
“It speaks to the need to synthesize the arguments and really put our focus on achieving some legislative gains for people that will be most impacted,” she said.
Zoning for fairness
One of the most far-reaching proposals is the “Fair Share” zoning bill that looks ahead 10 years to a time when advocates hope there will be 140,000 more affordable homes than there are now. The key is that the homes will be spread out across the state instead of clustered in cities.
The plan, promoted by the Open Communities Alliance and its Growing Together Connecticut coalition, calls for all but the most impoverished municipalities to produce a certain number of affordable homes to meet their share of the housing need.
The group calculated the need by looking at how many households in the lowest income brackets are spending more than 50% of their income on housing-related expenses. Estimates put 10,200 of those households in New London County.
The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in New London is $1,290 per month, according to apartments.com. In East Lyme, it’s $2,342. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates that a family of four making $56,300 annually ― which is considered a “very low income” household ― can afford up to $1,267 per month.
The bill would require the state Office of Policy and Management to figure out how many units each city and town must build so there’s enough affordable housing for those who need it. Then it would be up to the towns to decide how to achieve the goal.
The city of New London would not be assigned a Fair Share allocation under the bill. That’s because municipalities with more than 20% of their population living in poverty are already doing their part to provide affordable housing and would not be required to do more, according to the alliance.
Open Communities Alliance executive director Erin Boggs reiterated more people are seeing “the urgency of creating more housing that is affordable for all kinds of families” across the state.
“I think for legislators and the governor, if they’re looking for creating sustainable, long-term growth in the state of Connecticut, Fair Share should be front and center,” she said.
Towns that don’t follow the steps laid out in the bill to create affordable homes on their own terms would be subject to “default zoning” requiring 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.
Opponents, the most vocal of which come from Fairfield County, said at a February public hearing that the bill would strip local control from cities and towns that may not have the infrastructure or resources to support such development.
Another significant zoning bill would incentivize the creation of affordable housing in and around towns with regular train and bus routes.
Under the bill language, towns that put “transit-oriented development” districts into their zoning regulations become eligible for expert planning guidance from the state as well as funding for certain infrastructure programs like water and sewer system expansion and the remediation of polluted sites.
Towns that don’t update their zoning regulations to include more affordable options slip to the bottom of the priority list for those grants.
The bill is being promoted by DesegregateCT, the grassroots organization behind what they describe as the “work, live, ride” movement. The group’s director, Pete Harrison, said this week he’s been told the bill could be debated in the House in early May.
“The math on our side with the majority the Democrats have,” he said.
Democrats hold a 24-12 majority in the Senate and a 98-53 majority in the House.
Harrison estimated about 20 Democrats could vote against the bill and it would still have enough support to pass.
Two previous iterations of the transit-oriented development bill have failed, even with strong Democratic majorities. But Harrison said this bill takes into account lessons learned from the process and “good faith” criticism lodged against the past proposals.
State Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said making affordable housing a priority must include enough funding to help growing cities and towns cover associated costs. She referenced infrastructure expenses like water and sewer system construction or upgrades, and increased spending on education if the added housing stock brings in school-aged children.
A ranking member of the Finance, Revenue & Bonding Committee, Cheeseman referenced a philosophy among members that goes like this: “If it’s a priority, we’ll find the money.”
“Well, if it’s a priority, you should take into account that this does not come without a cost,” she said. “What can you do to help municipalities meet that increased cost?”
Asked how she sees herself voting on the Fair Share and transit-oriented bills if and when they make it to the floor of the General Assembly, she said she’ll be voting against any legislation “that doesn’t, one, significantly recognize the additional financial burden it’s going to place on towns and, two, that supersedes true local control.”
‘Direction and unity’
Sean Ghio, a policy analyst for the Hartford-based housing advocacy group Partnership for Strong Communities, sees the flood of bills as a positive and a negative.
“To me, it means our elected officials are recognizing how critical the housing system is right now,” he said. “I think that’s a really good thing.”
The problem, according to Ghio, is that the “proliferation of ideas” makes it difficult for elected leaders and policymakers to know where to focus.
He described the widespread measures scattered across multiple bills as a lost opportunity to create a unified agenda early on that’s easier to explain and promote.
“I think the focus needs to be on policies and resources that serve to improve the housing stability of those most in need – the 200,000+ households that spend more than half of their income on housing costs,” he said.
Two omnibus bills from legislative leadership and Lamont’s proposals contain many of the provisions that have advanced this session.
One bill representing Senate priorities includes a wintertime ban on evictions spanning Dec. 1 to March 31 and new tax credits to spur workforce housing. It earmarks $600 million for a pilot program to update homes built before 1980 for energy efficiency and to remediate them in cases of health concerns like mold and lead.
Legislation put forth by House leadership addresses ways to make it easier for people to find and keep housing. One of the most significant changes is the proposed increase in the real estate conveyance tax and a provision directing any proceeds higher than $180 million to the state’s Housing Trust Fund, which provides grants and loans for affordable housing developments.
The House bill would also create a task force to look into expanding sewer capacity as a way to promote development and a study of the Rental Assistance Program that provides housing vouchers for low-income households.
Lamont’s proposal includes a $600 million commitment to affordable and workforce housing programs and calls for changes including a one-month limit on security deposits for rentals and a study on how state-owned property can best be used for housing.
Ghio said House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, has been successful working collaboratively to draft and build support for his chamber’s omnibus bill.
The legislature as a whole and Lamont’s administration need more of that kind of “direction and unity” to establish affordable housing as a clear priority, according to Ghio.
“Because a lot of folks, they don’t want any of these changes,” he said.
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