Like the rest of the country, Connecticut is grappling with a housing crunch that continues to bog down home sales with high prices and high interest rates. It’s an issue lawmakers and advocates from both sides were looking to tackle this session, and yet it’s leaving everyone dissatisfied with the results.
“Will (home) prices come down at some point, maybe?” asked House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. “But I’m not necessarily thinking about the next two years, but about the next 20 years. If we don’t start adjusting it now, we have an even bigger issue 20 years from now.
Rojas was pushing for major zoning reforms statewide, looking to push towns to relax rules that limit the types of housing they allow.
Those efforts failed, although the legislature did require the Office of Policy and Management to study how much more affordable housing is needed statewide. OPM also needs to look at how that housing should be spread across towns.
That Fair Share Housing Allocation study has opponents worried about where the state is headed.
“I think it’s pretty telegraphed what the so-called study, what the end goal is,” said Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich.
Fazio and other critics say zoning reforms strip away local control while failing to provide funding for infrastructure upgrades, including streets and sewers. He also said some towns have a large number of wetlands or other environmental issues that limit how many more homes developers can build.
“There’s discrete issues and problems that they deal with, whether it’s traffic or infrastructure or environment, that they’ll know best,” he said.
Peter Harrison, director of Desegregate Connecticut, wants to see more housing being built, but he also shares some of Fazio’s concerns.
His group was pushing a bill named “Work, Live, Ride” that emphasized transit-oriented development. Harrison believed the proposal “really fit the moment” and was disappointed it failed this legislative session.
“It was a good balance of doing a lot of research, a lot of local organizing, a lot of outreach to local planning and zoning commissions to get a sense of — this Work, Live, Ride proposal is a really good fit,” he said.
The state budget does include a total of $810 million for various housing initiatives pushed by Gov. Ned Lamont, including aid for the construction of affordable and workforce housing. Lamont has also been a vocal supporter of transit-oriented development.
“The future of Connecticut’s economy depends on the availability of housing, meaning that we cannot grow jobs unless workers have somewhere to live,” Lamont said in a statement. “I’ve heard time and again from business leaders that they want to make investments in Connecticut but they need housing available for their workers.”
Harrison said the funding isn’t enough, though. The Work, Live, Ride bill would have strengthened an Office of Responsible Growth within OPM, and tasked it to provide more support to towns along rail lines.
Harrison is not opposed to efforts that push more towns to relax their zoning laws, but he says transit-oriented development specifically should be the focus.
For starters, he agrees that some towns have limitations, especially environmental ones, that prevent the construction of widespread affordable housing. Work, Live, Ride, on the other hand, is centered around mass transit, and Harrison said that’s a more environmentally-conscious approach to housing.
Maria Weingarten, a cofounder of Connecticut 169 Strong, is worried about any changes that involve the state pushing towns into zoning reform.
“We want to make sure that we pass legislation that is enticing to towns to encourage development that is beneficial to the towns and collaborative,” she said.
Weingarten said each municipality has its own challenges and a one-size fits all approach will only create problems. She did agree, though, that funding could encourage towns to address issues that limit growth. But she generally wants to see what she describes as a more collaborative approach.
Currently, state law 8-30g allows developers to sue a town that denies an application for affordable housing. The law requires that 30% of the homes in the project meet a definition of “affordable” and that the developer must show the project met the local zoning requirements.
Developers have used the provision to push through developments in suburbs and rural communities over the objections of local officials.
Weingarten said this creates an adversarial relationship, though, and the state should amend the process so that developers are encouraged to work with towns before taking them to court. She also thinks the state should do more to help families, loosening up the rules around vouchers that can help them get homes.
Fazio agrees, saying the current process largely sends vouchers to municipalities that already have a large amount of affordable housing. In some communities, large sums of vouchers remain unused. He said sending money in any form to municipalities will encourage them to amend their zoning laws.
“We’re rendering sticks onto certain towns and cities without also giving them the tools to support it,” he said.
Rojas disagrees, saying that approach won’t result in the kind of overhaul he believes the state needs.
“It’s painfully incremental, for so many reasons,” he said.
He said the only way to address the housing crisis is by rapidly increasing inventory, but that can’t happen without zoning reform.
An analysis by Realtor.com this week said Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, and Norwich all ranked among its Top 20 hottest housing markets.
The supply isn’t keeping up with demand, though. The Greater Hartford Association of REALTORS said the number of homes listed for sale in the Hartford area was down 36% from a year ago.
Rojas is not optimistic that the legislature will do anything about it, though. Even moderate Democrats have been reluctant to force their districts to change zoning laws, and Lamont has maintained 8-30g is adequate.
He did not think zoning reform would gain momentum next session, either.
“Probably not next year because it’s an election year, and I’m just going to be blunt about it,” he said. That’s fine with Harrison.
He said the Fair Share study shouldn’t be controversial, but he also believes opponents dug in their heels against any broad changes around housing. That included his Work, Live, Ride proposal.
Weingarten and Fazio are both worried the study will lead to bigger changes next year. They said they’ll continue to push for more funding and a broader distribution of housing vouchers as the way to help people get homes.
Rojas said he, too, isn’t giving up, even if he doesn’t think change will happen next year. He said he plans to visit towns, particularly those in Fairfield County, to talk about the need to allow for more housing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The original version of this story erroneously listed Jason Rojas as House Minority Leader.