Zoning inhibits housing growth, panelists say

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Connecticut towns need to get used to the idea that affordable homes to attract young professionals and emergency-services personnel will require higher-density development and less restrictive zoning regulations than currently exist, officials said Friday during a-housing forum at the Mohegan Sun Convention Center.

"The major impediment to affordable housing is local zoning regulations that prevent the kind of density that would make it affordable," said Bill Attridge, board member of the Old Saybrook-based HOPE Partnership that collaborates on housing projects along the shoreline and in Middlesex County.

Attridge was one of 10 speakers at the forum sponsored by the Partnership for Strong Communities and other housing-related organizations and attended by about 75 town and state officials, builders and real-estate brokers. This was the seventh affordable-housing forum held throughout the state, out of a total of 13 scheduled meetings.

"Connecticut just hasn't built much housing in the past," said David Fink, policy director for the Partnership for Strong Communities, a statewide advocacy group for sensible housing solutions. "And what we have built is not really what we need."

"The days of building McMansions are gone," added John Bolduc, executive director of the Eastern Connecticut Association of Realtors. "Builders today need to realize that right now the market is at the workforce-housing (affordable) level."

With the state having lost a higher percentage of its population in the 25- to 34-year-old age range than any other state over the past two decades, Fink said it's time to build smaller, more efficient homes while busting some of the myths surrounding affordable housing. The myths involve crime increases, school-population overload and devaluation of property values, among others, he said.

All of these perceived problems are misconceptions, according to the housing advocates at the forum.

"Affordable housing is nothing you should be afraid of," said Geoffrey Sager, president of the Metro Realty Group that builds homes across the state.

Sager showed off slides of attractive affordable-housing projects his company has designed, all of them for the rental market.

"In a lot of communities, rental housing is a dirty word," Sager acknowledged.

But by developing good relationships with town officials, he said, builders of affordable housing can make a go of it. It is intimidating, though, that it often takes $250,000 just to get started on the planning phase of the project, Sager said.

"We need density and a predictable approval path," he said.

And for those willing to build and needing pre-development funding, Mike Santoro of the state Department of Economic and Community Development said, Connecticut has money to lend - $100 million over the next two years through the Home Investment Partnership Program.

But money alone is not the answer, according to the forum speakers. Perceptions and regulations must be changed before any real progress on affordable housing can be made, they said.

Connecticut faces the possibility of a widespread devaluation of its housing stock if it doesn't develop more affordable places for young people to live, said David Kooris, vice president of the Regional Plan Association. He said that without young professionals buying up the homes of baby boomers, a domino effect could eventually lower the values of homes everywhere as higher-priced houses no longer will find as many interested buyers.

l.howard@theday.com

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