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    Sunday, May 26, 2024

    Rework regulations to ease housing shortage

    Recent headlines highlight affordable housing shortages, skyrocketing rents and home prices, and demands for rent control, but no one is addressing the real cause of these issues, which is a near uniform blockade by municipalities. Each town has its own Planning & Zoning (P&Z) regulations. These regulations are written by planners who are hired by the volunteer members of local P&Z commissions. The commissions have chosen to set the bar high for new housing. Just 60 years ago, a home builder could walk into a town hall, apply for a building permit, pay a $20-$100 fee and be able to build a home. That same process now takes months and costs thousands of dollars. A developer looking to build a subdivision will pay tens of thousands of dollars for permits and plans. The hurdles vary from town to town, and in each town, the hurdles vary over time as the towns change planning directors. It is discouraging for anyone seeking to build housing.

    The Connecticut Legislature took a stab at making affordable housing easier to build by passing a state regulation, C.G.S.§8-30(g), the affordable housing statute, which supersedes town regulations. Under the usual town P&Z regulations, if a builder meets the regulations in its subdivision proposal, the town must grant approval. The catch is that meeting the regulations can be a very subjective assessment by the local commission. Additionally, town P&Z regulations are frequently used to greatly limit the use of land. Some towns require a parcel to be at least four acres. Some towns require an acre of virtually flat land in each parcel. Section 8-30(g) sets aside town regulations and allows a developer to decrease parcel size, setback, slope and road size requirements, with the limitation that any development proposed must only meet the basic requirements of “health, safety and welfare” for the development and its abutters. Section 8-30(g) flips the “meet the regulations” requirement by placing the burden of proof on towns to show why a development does not meet the health, safety and welfare standard. The affordable housing statute requires that one-third of the development be affordable under the state’s definition, which is well spelled out. Those buyers must have real income and good credit. It is not a subsidy program like Section 8.

    Still, planning directors and P&Z commissions insist on fighting 8-30(g). It took me five years to start a subdivision in Lisbon while the town fought my 18-lot development by rejecting my application, my re-application and then fighting approval in Connecticut Superior, Appellate and Supreme Courts, all at a substantial cost to Lisbon taxpayers. Because the development met all health, safety and welfare requirements, the town lost at every court level. That added approximately $8,300 to the cost of each home, all of which are now occupied by a great group of mostly young families. Under town regulations, I would have been allowed only four lots on the same 12-acre parcel.

    Increasing housing creation to meet demand will control home prices and rents. Only structural change in the approval process will accomplish that. P&Z regulations should be written uniformly by a state commission. P&Z approvals should be removed from local layperson control and transferred to professional staff hired by regional planning groups for vetting. Perhaps planning directors should have professional engineer licenses to hold the planning director position. Engineers tend to be more fact-driven and have the training to understand the task at hand more fully. More housing will quiet much of the housing anxiety in Connecticut, but the approval process must be changed.

    Nathan Weiss, a Norwich native, is a multi-state landlord and retired real estate developer.

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