Affordable housing concept
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TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

Here’s a very quick straw poll of everyone in the room. Anyone who thinks affordable housing isn’t a problem in Connecticut, speak now or forever hold your peace. The directive is followed by a deafening silence. That’s because if there’s one thing conservatives and progressives alike can agree on, it’s that housing in the state is too expensive.

The state also agrees, which is why lawmakers enacted the Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Act. The law facilitates the construction of affordable housing, especially in communities that lacked a healthy supply of affordable units to begin with.

The act, which was passed in 1989, has sparked a discussion on affordable housing in the race for governor between incumbent Democrat Ned Lamont and Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski. Here’s why.

Known as 8-30g for its assigned number as a bill, the law allows developers to, in effect, override local zoning codes under certain circumstances if the municipality has less than 10% of its housing stock deemed affordable by the state Department of Housing.

Also known as the Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Procedure, the law allows affordable housing developers to challenge a town’s refusal to approve their proposal even if it doesn’t conform to a town’s land-use regulations. We could also call it the “30-30 law” because at least 30% of units in these developments must be priced low enough that low- and moderate-income earners won’t be spending more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

But perhaps the most notable aspect of 8-30g is that, for proposals where the 30-30 measure applies, the law shifts the burden of proof for approval or denial from the applicant to the municipality, which in order to reject the application must show that the project would compromise public interests such as safety and health, or other public interests that cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development proposal.

In other words, it’s likely the developer gets his way, unless the proposal is made in a town that already meets the 10% affordable housing goal, in which case the regular rules apply. Currently, only 31 of the state’s 169 municipalities have met that threshold.

And there are some other exceptions to the law if a town can show it is making progress. For example, a municipality is eligible for a four-year moratorium on appeals taken under the procedure each time it shows it has added affordable housing units, according to the state Office of Legislative Research.

It does strike me as heavy-handed for the state to, in effect, declare a town’s zoning code null and void if a developer wants to build affordable housing, but it’s a reflection of just how critical the housing shortage was 35 years ago – and the problem has only gotten worse.

The Partnership For Strong Communities, a housing and homelessness advocacy group in Hartford, has collected a treasure trove of statistics. As of May of this year, Connecticut had 174,337 affordable housing units representing 11.71% of all housing in the state, for a net gain of only 129 units from 2020.

The 31 municipalities that have met the 10% threshold had a total of 133,929 affordable housing units representing 76.8% of the total supply of affordable homes in the state in 2021.

Unfortunately, as the partnership’s policy director Sean Ghio reports, Connecticut’s affordable housing remains concentrated in a handful of cities. The number of affordable housing units in Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport is equivalent to the total affordable housing in the bottom 150 Connecticut municipalities. I might add that in my neck of the Northwest Corner woods, one of the poorest towns in the state, North Canaan, functions as affordable housing for some of those who work for the wealthy in Sharon and Salisbury.

So just about everyone of every political stripe acknowledges that we need more affordable housing. Progressives typically see it as a matter of fairness, while conservatives tend to see the problem in economic terms. After all, economic development is hamstrung if workers can’t find a place to live. We’ve all seen stories of businesses that couldn’t reopen for lack of help even after pandemic restrictions were lifted because, in many cases, workers could not afford to live close enough – or earn enough – to justify the commute.

Stefanowski has recently called for the repeal of 8-30g, arguing that Connecticut’s current carrot-and-stick approach, which rewards towns for building affordable housing and punishes those that don’t, isn’t working. Predictably, however, he did not say what he would replace it with.

Perhaps because he thinks it gives him more credibility on the issue, Stefanowski likes to tell the story of how he “grew up in affordable housing” in New Haven, where a closet in the family home functioned as his bedroom. As for what he would replace 8-30g with, Stefanowski would only say, as characterized by CTNewsJunkie’s Christine Stuart, that he “wants to work with towns who are investing in affordable housing and find a stick for those that aren’t.” But Stuart added, “he lacked clarity about how he would actually make that happen.”

In other words, “Trust me. I’ll come up with something good.” Stefanowski’s approach brings to mind Republican calls 10 years ago to repeal the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) without offering a serious alternative.

The Lamont administration says 8-30g is working, though obviously not fast enough. Perhaps the most passionate defense of the law I’ve seen came from former Democratic state Rep. Bill Cibes, who also served as secretary of the Office of Policy and Management in the administration of Gov. Lowell Weicker and chancellor of the Connecticut State University system. Writing in the Connecticut Mirror in February, Cibes asserted that 8-30g is “a law that works,” though surprisingly, the former Connecticut College professor provided little data to support his conclusion.

The Partnership For Strong Communities did. In a fact sheet published earlier this year that attempts to debunk common myths about 8-30g, the partnership says that at least 5,000 income-restricted units “have been built directly under the act, many of them in developments that also contain low-cost market-rate units.”

“Many more affordable units have been approved by towns because of the existence of the act,” the partnership reports, referencing mostly wealthy towns. “In recent years, approvals and settlements have taken place in Avon, Bethany, New Canaan, and Simsbury, to name a few.”

As for yours truly, I hesitate to let anyone – even affordable housing developers – run roughshod over municipal zoning regulations. I think the 10% standard is a fair one, but if 8-30g is repealed, as Stefanowski wishes, I would replace it with economic incentives to reach the goal. If over a reasonable period of time, for example, towns fail to make sufficient progress in reaching the goal, economic aid from the state could be withheld.

In the case of wealthy municipalities such as mine that receive very little in state aid to begin with, the state could impose punitive fines on the towns that increase with each year of insufficient progress. The income could go into a fund to support the construction of affordable housing throughout the state. This way, towns – rather than developers – could decide among themselves how and where to site affordable housing. If they don’t, local taxpayers will feel the pain and pressure the town government to do something.

There’s your plan, Bob. I’ll send you an invoice by the end of the week.

Terry Cowgill

Terry Cowgill

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is the retired managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com or any of the author's other employers.