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Study: Connecticut zoning regulations restrict expansion of affordable housing

Connecticut’s restrictive zoning laws stand in the way of more affordable housing and increased housing diversity in the state, according to a study released last week.

DesegregateCT’s “Zoning Atlas,” an interactive map that shows how zoning laws manifest in all 2,616 zoning districts in the state, was compiled from than 30,000 pages of zoning code and GIS information from 2,403 districts, among other sources.

 “We think it shows how outdated zoning laws make it hard to build diverse, affordable housing,” according to group's website.

Sara Bronin, a land use professor at the UConn School Law and founder of DesegregateCT, an advocacy coalition comprising non-profit groups, said the organization is hoping the state legislature considers its research and recommendations in the current legislative session.

Bronin described the housing problem Connecticut is facing as this:

 “Our proposals all rest on the assumption that zoning is the gatekeeper; zoning is a barrier to the kinds of communities that we know we need to develop in our state,” she said. “If we don’t develop diverse communities where many people are welcome and allowed to live, you will continue to see Connecticut be an aging state that has not grown economically like its neighboring states, and also a state where we see modern-day segregation in many forms, not just by race, but also by income.” 

The Zoning Atlas found that 67.4% of primarily residential zoned land in Connecticut allows one-family housing only.

Larger cities significantly outpace smaller towns in allowing for multifamily housing. A total of 12.6% of land in Connecticut’s larger cities is zoned for three-family housing, and 9.16% is zoned for four-family housing by right, meaning approved by municipal staff without a public hearing. In small towns merely 0.21% of land is zoned for three-family housing by right, and 0.68% for four-family housing by right. 

“You can see that there’s a heavy reliance on one type of zoning, large lot, single family zoning, and there’s not many areas of the state that easily allow multifamily housing,” Bronin said.

Another of the project’s key findings was that just eight towns allow only one-family housing, meaning no multifamily housing whatsoever. None are in southeastern Connecticut. 

In New London County, towns such as Old Lyme, East Lyme, Waterford and Stonington have a minuscule amount of land zoned for multifamily housing. Much of the land zoned for three-or-more-family housing in the region requires a hearing before it can be approved.

“We show the difference between easy development and difficult development by whether there’s a public hearing,” Bronin said. “Once you require any kind of housing or development to go through a public hearing process, it becomes a much more discretionary approval. Once you start allowing too much discretion, it ends up resulting in fewer project approvals and more onerous or expensive processes that hinder the production of housing.”

Bronin added that DesegregateCT is not suggesting municipalities get rid of the public hearing process in every case, but in specific instances, like in areas within a half-mile of public transit or areas in and around downtown areas. In other cases, she said it would be best for towns to conduct public hearings in the beginning of the approval process rather than the end.

How are area towns doing? 

Atlas users can click on individual towns to see the affordable housing information for that community.

For instance, only 0.9% of Old Lyme is zoned for two-family housing, and 0.8% for three- or four-plus family housing. Any multifamily housing requires a hearing.

“It’s very dramatic to have less than one percent of land allowing even two-family housing,” Bronin said about Old Lyme. 

East Lyme is similar: 3.1% of zoned area in town allows for three-plus-family housing after a public hearing, and 2.3% for three-plus-family housing by right.  Just 1% of area in Stonington is zoned for housing for three or more families by right, and 0.6% for three or more families after a public hearing.  

By contrast, New London has more land zoned for multifamily housing with 16.9% of zoned area allowing housing for three or more families after a public hearing. A total of 31.7% of zoned area allows housing for four or more families by right.

In Norwich, 11.6% of its zoned area allows housing for three or more families after a public hearing, with 9.7% of the city’s zoned area allowing housing for three or more families by right.

A total of 0.3% of zoned area in Groton requires a hearing for three or more family housing while 5% and 4.1% of zoned area in Groton allows for four-plus and three-plus family housing by right, respectively. In Groton, 20.2% of the zoned area is for two-family housing by right.

In Waterford, 23.6% of zoned area allows housing for three or more families following a public hearing, and 2.1% of zoned area allows housing for three or more families by right. 

A total of 25.4% of zoned area in Montville allows for three or more family housing by right; 2.9% of zoned area in town requires a public hearing for housing for that many families. 

Atlas offers suggestions 

Bronin offered some examples of how diversifying Connecticut’s housing options can help its residents.

“You’re seeing a lot of seniors who want to stay in their communities but simply don’t have the kind of housing they need to do so,” she said. “From a southeastern Connecticut standpoint, you see stories of new jobs coming to places like Electric Boat, and you see concern about where the people who are taking those jobs will be housed.” 

The atlas includes proposed solutions such as capping parking zoning requirements, which can drive up costs for builders, creating exclusionary living prices and slowing housing production. Another proposal from the group is “transit-oriented development,” focusing the building of affordable housing near train stations, for example.

“Unlocking new housing near public investments in transit can generate tax revenue, create jobs, and stimulate businesses,” according to DesegregateCT. “Areas around these stations are often not zoned to satisfy local demand for housing in convenient locations.”

A related idea of the group’s involves making housing of two to four units by right, with no minimum parking requirements, within a quarter mile (a five-minute walk) of a main street in towns with more than 7,500 people or with "concentrated development as defined by the Census.” This recommendation was borne from the atlas showing that many municipalities maintain arcane zoning codes that put single-family housing near main streets.

The group’s seven chief solutions and corresponding explanations can be found on its website at https://www.desegregatect.org/platform

Democrats in the state legislature have said they will prioritize increasing affordable housing options in the current session. Republicans are generally opposed to state or regional interference regarding zoning restrictions. A group of Republicans, including Rep. Doug Dubitsky of the 47th district, which encompasses nine largely rural towns stretching from Chaplin to the northern tip of Norwich, are proposing a resolution calling for a state constitutional amendment precluding state/regional interference in local zoning regulations. 

s.spinella@theday.com

 

 

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