The fight for more affordable housing in Connecticut’s wealthier neighborhoods has been a long one for advocates, and legislators are now looking to tackle the issue through a slew of bills to change local zoning laws.
“We are a segregated state,” House Majority Leader Jason Rojas said last week.“This is about giving people choice and the opportunity to make decisions for themselves about how to improve outcomes for their families, their children and their lives.”
During a public hearing Monday, proponents of reform supported Senate Bill 1024 and House Bill 6611, which they say will promote the creation of affordable housing in towns that lack it and therefore diversify the racial make-up of those municipalities. A whopping 340 people signed up to testify on the bills.
Senate Bill 1024 would institute sweeping zoning reform by requiring towns with more than 7,500 residents to build an adequate number of affordable multifamily housing units, as well as housing near transit stations and in commercial corridors.
House Bill 6611 aims to aid and require municipalities to plan and zone to have enough affordable housing. The legislation is based on the concept of “fair share housing,” a methodology that determines the need for affordable housing for each town individually.
“It’s eliminating some barriers in a thoughtful way,” Sen. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, said of Senate Bill 1024. “We know from the history where these zoning regulations in many cases came from. It will inherently create more diverse communities.”
The data shows that Connecticut is one of the most geographically segregated states in the country. The institutional barriers date back to the Depression Era, when Black and Hispanic communities were packed into urban centers through redlining and barred from buying homes in white neighborhoods.
These areas were then graded as “undesirable” zones by the federal government and denied critical funding for education, infrastructure and more.
The systemic segregation has persisted to this day and has led to towns like Glastonbury, Farmington and Avon being over 80% white, according to 2019 census data. Neighborhoods that are primarily white historically tend to have the best schools, less crime and more job prospects because of decades of better accessibility to resources and funding.
Lower-income families want to live in these areas, according to Eric Santini, who is the president and chairman of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association.
“The demand is real. We have long waiting lists,” he said.
Advocates say the bills will generate billions of dollars in income for Connecticut residents and taxes for state and local governments, and encourage sustainability and generational wealth. They point to New Jersey, which has produced thousands of units after the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that communities must build affordable housing for low-income and poor families.
But even with the promising precedent, the opposition remains strong. Critics argue that legislation like Senate Bill 1024 and House Bill 6611 are an attack on municipalities’ local control of their planning and zoning laws.
Elizabeth Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said they support the goal of affordable housing but they legislation will have unintended consequences.
“Small towns are very concerned about legislation that would override local zoning laws and mandate that towns permit affordable housing as-of-right,” Gara said.
Gara said small towns worry about the demand on resources.
“A one-size-fits-all state mandated approach to affordable housing is simply not workable,” Gara said. “Housing and other development is severely limited in areas where there are no public sewers or water supplies. In addition, fast track as-of-right approvals don’t provide towns with the opportunity to fully consider how developments may impact traffic safety, parking issues, wastewater capacity, and other public health and safety issues.”
Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said that Senate Bill 1024 would effectively eliminate towns’ voices in their zoning, referencing a section in the bill that says noncompliant regulation by municipalities will be invalid
“I read that as a state telling our local municipalities that if you don’t follow it, your local regulations are null and void,” Hwang said.
Opponents also say that only local planning and zoning committees can determine how more multifamily housing would affect them with factors like school and emergency service capacity.
“There is no opportunity for public input on whether or not the schools have capacity and whether or not emergency services have capacity for the increased size,” said Rep. Tami Zawistowski, R-East Granby.
Still, proponents counter that the benefits will be long-term. Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said the town has seen a burst in residential diversity and vibrancy since passing zoning laws similar to what is proposed in Senate Bill 1024.
“Our state suffers from housing diversity and we have an opportunity as a state to make progress to address that deficiency,” Bronin said.
CORRECTION: The original version of this article reported the wrong title for Eric Santini, who is the president and chairman of the Home Builders & Remodelers Association.