Zoning for affordability: Housing advocates say public support is there
Hartford ― Advocates for a bill that would spread the need for affordable housing across the state instead of allowing it to concentrate in cities, pointed to recent poll results as evidence that Connecticut residents are ready for “transformative change.”
The survey of 2,562 registered voters by Embold Research found that 73% believe there should be “housing options in every town for residents of all incomes.” The remaining 27% said those who can’t afford market-rate housing in a town “need to move somewhere else.”
State Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, co-chairman of the legislature’s Housing Committee, spoke at the Capitol Tuesday flanked by members of Growing Together Connecticut, a coalition of more than 45 mostly nonprofit social service and advocacy groups dedicated to zoning reform. The group was launched last year by the Hartford-based Open Communities Alliance, a group that started almost a decade ago to address racial segregation.
They were there to promote House Bill 3366, a measure introduced by the Housing Committee that would require towns and cities to build enough housing units over the next 10 years to meet their “fair share” of the housing needed in their particular region.
A previous version of the bill didn’t make it to the floor for a vote last year.
Numbers calculated by the alliance in 2020 show the share assigned to towns in the southeastern Connecticut region could range from 311 units in Salem to 937 units in Groton.
“People in Connecticut, from Manchester to Mansfield, from Hartford to Hartland, want affordable housing in every community in the state,” Luxenberg said. “The polling is clear. The people want affordable housing in every community, every community in the state of Connecticut.”
In another poll question asking which viewpoint comes closer to their thoughts on the matter, 61% of the respondents said the government should step in to make housing affordable if towns won’t do it themselves. The rest described housing as a purely local issue towns should be able to address on their own terms.
Luxenberg said the polling signfies an end to NIMBYism, referring to “not in my backyard” opposition that often drives away development in suburban and rural towns.
“The era of NIMBY is over in Connecticut,” he repeated.
The Rev. Tracy Johnson Russell, director of Saint Monica's Episcopal Church and a resident of Bethany, said she was at Tuesday’s event representing the 50 members of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Alliance.
“There is a misperception that residents of suburban towns like mine are against changes to zoning that support affordable housing,” she said. “While there are no doubt NIMBY ― not in my backyard ― elements in my town, there are also thousands of Connecticut suburban residents like me who understand the history of how we got here and the social justice and economic harms associated that come with not doing the right thing, now.”
She said housing as a priority benefits everyone in the state.
“I stand here today confident that our Fair Share legislation is not only a path to justice, but it is a path to economic growth, a path to jobs, a path to retention of our kids and our parents who can’t afford to stay here,” she said.
On its website, Embold Research describes itself as the nonpartisan, nonpolitical unit of Change Research. The parent company was started in 2017 to foster democracy “by making public opinion insights more accessible to forward-thinking political campaigns and advocacy organizations.”
The online poll was completed during the last week in January by those who responded to targeted ads on Facebook and Instagram or to text messages sent to a sampling of registered voters, according to a memo from the company. The margin of error is 2.1%.
Luxenberg, pressed afterward about his comment on the end of NIMBYism, chalked it up to his “flair for the dramatic.”
“I think that sort of group is shrinking, and the broad-based coalition of people who want transformative change as it relates to affordable housing in every community is growing, and I think the polling is really reflective of that,” he said.
Erin Boggs, the founding executive director of the Hartford-based Open Communities Alliance, emphasized existing state law specifies cities and towns must encourage housing choice and economic diversity in their zoning regulations ― including housing for low- and moderate-income households.
The Fair Share policy is a framework that allows “a range of housing to be built in a way that is already required by law,” according to Boggs.
“At this point it should go without saying there is a housing crisis, and we are in the midst of it in Connecticut,” she said. “It separates us by race and income, it makes homes unaffordable and it stagnates the economy.”
The Fair Share bill would require the state Office of Policy and Management to work with state agencies responsible for housing and community development to figure out how many units each city and town must build so that there’s enough affordable housing for those who need it. Then it would be up to the towns to decide how to achieve the goal within 10 years.
The alliance estimates there are 10,200 households in the lowest-income brackets in New London County that are spending more than 50% of their income on housing-related expenses.
A family of four in most of New London County ― except in Colchester and Lebanon, where the median income is higher ― that makes up to $67,560 per year while spending more than half on housing-related expenses is considered in serious need of affordable housing under the Fair Share methodology.
Boggs said each town’s goal is “carefully calibrated to consider the town’s resources and what it has already done to generate affordable housing.”
Other factors include how much a given municipality brings in from taxes, its median income and the poverty rate.
Towns that make progress toward the Fair Share goals will usually create enough housing units within two to five years to qualify for a temporary exemption from the state statute known as 8-30g, according to Boggs. The statute has been vilified in communities that believe strongly in local zoning control.
“Fair Share is not an override of local zoning,” she said. “To the contrary, it is critical that residents of municipalities come together to plan how they will meet their fair share in creative ways that meet their vision.”
The statute makes it possible for developers to get around local zoning restrictions by suing the town if their plans for affordable housing are rejected. The burden of proof in such cases shifts to the municipality to show the risk to public health or safety outweighs the need for affordable housing.
Municipalities are beholden to the requirements of 8-30g until 10% of their housing stock is deed-restricted as affordable ― or until they build enough units to qualify for a four-year moratorium. Once the threshold is met, developers no longer get an automatic appeal when they put forth plans that don’t meet zoning regulations.
She added the Fair Share model includes “some sticks” as well as carrots.
Towns that don’t comply would be subject to “default zoning” that would require towns to allow multifamily developments of up to 20 units in areas with public water and sewer access, or smaller-scale developments in other areas as local public health codes permit.
The towns would also open themselves up to lawsuits if they didn’t comply with the requirements based on the language in the bill. Already, the alliance is behind a high-profile court case lodged against the New Haven suburb of Woodbridge because the zoning laws there prohibit multifamily development in most parts of town.
Municipalities with more than 20% of their population living in poverty are already doing their part to provide affordable housing and would not be required to do more under the legislation, according to the alliance. That means New London would not be assigned a “Fair Share” goal.
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