Panel members say affordable housing rules in need of reform

Norwich - Affordable housing regulations would be more acceptable to developers and towns if they were more predictable and enforceable, members of a panel on both sides of the planning-and-development divide said Monday during a forum at the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments offices.

James Butler, SCCOG's executive director, moderated the two-hour forum, sponsored by the agency and the Southeastern Connecticut Housing Alliance, which tried to answer what is wrong with the two key affordable housing laws in the state, the Affordable Housing Appeals Procedure (commonly called 8-30g) and the HomeConnecticut program.

Butler pointed out that in southeastern Connecticut, towns' affordable housing rates range from about 1 percent to slightly more than 20 percent, despite the state's target of towns having at least 10 percent of their units as being affordable.

Groton, New London and Norwich are the only three towns in southeastern Connecticut exempt from the requirement because they already have a large number of affordable units, but of the other towns in the region the average affordable housing rate is 3.65 percent, he said.

"What is wrong with the program?" Butler asked, considering that only 2 percent of the housing units built in Connecticut during the past two decades could be categorized as affordable.

Robert Fusari, a builder and president of Real Estate Service of Connecticut, said the real problem is the attitude of people in the state who somehow think that affordable means unacceptable.

"I challenge you to go to our property SeaSpray (condominiums) in Niantic and pick out the affordable units," Fusari said.

Timothy Hollister, an attorney who has represented affordable-housing developers, said what needs to be done is for the state to mandate affordable housing in each town in a fair-share system similar to the New Jersey model. The state should draft regulations to make the requirements standard across the state, he said, though he doubted if the Connecticut legislature would have the political will to make such a change.

"If that were proposed in Hartford, there would be Armageddon," he said.

Hollister also advocated a one-stop process in which developers could get through zoning, sewer and wetlands regulatory procedures with one permit.

But James Rabbitt, a senior planner at the SCCOG, said the problem with affordable housing laws from a town's point of view is that the two affordable housing programs conflict. Targeted zones proposed under the House Connecticut legislation - largely unused because the regulations were implemented just before the real estate bubble burst in 2008 - can't be used by towns as part of their affordable housing quota, which means that a town cannot easily control where such a development will go, he said.

"I'd like to have more certainty to affordable housing," said Rabbitt.

David Fink, policy director at the Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities, said one problem is the issue of sewers. Whereas environmental regulations in Massachusetts allow for a more than 90-unit project based on certain housing densities, Connecticut's sewer standards cut the same type of project down to only about 30 units - an unaffordable number from a developer's viewpoint.

Some of these problems are being addressed, he said, but towns still need more direction in how to proactively plan for affordable housing rather than waiting for proposals to come to their attention.

Attorney Michael Zizka of the law firm Murtha Cullina, who often represents municipalities involved in affordable-housing fights, said he believes towns should be allowed to choose zones for affordable housing, as they do for other types of development. But the 8-30g statute upon which most of Connecticut's affordable-housing developments are based allows essentially spot zoning by developers who sometimes choose unsuitable sites for major projects, he said.

But with the 8-30g law, he said, issues of public health and safety are the only ones towns can consider in turning down an affordable housing proposal.

"I think that is flat wrong," Zizka said. "It turns the concept of comprehensive planning on its head."

The problem with this idea, said other panelists, is that towns could decide to develop affordable housing zones in areas that are undevelopable or not appropriate. Which brought the group back to one of the original points - that Connecticut needs to develop comprehensive affordable housing rules that developers can count on to reduce the risk that they will become embroiled in long legal battles and that towns can depend on to standardize their planning processes.

"We are not looking for land where we are going to be fighting a bunch of battles," said the developer Fusari.

Unfortunately, he added, too many towns are ready for battle as soon as the words "affordable housing" are uttered. This often leads to legal battles that ironically can increase costs for both developers and towns, as John Bolduc, chief executive of the Eastern Connecticut Realtors Association, pointed out, making affordable housing even more costly than it might have been.

l.howard@theday.com

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