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    Thursday, February 02, 2023

    Advocates plan affordable housing priorities for 2023 legislative session


    From policy reform to requests for financial infusions, affordable housing advocates are looking at different ways to address the widespread lack of housing affordability when the state legislature convenes on Jan. 4.

    One advocacy group, which began 24 years ago with a focus on homelessness before evolving to address affordable housing more broadly, is using a “consensus model” to come up with the list of priorities it will use to lobby lawmakers in the coming months.

    Partnership for Strong Communities policy director Sean Ghio said its HOMEConnecticut campaign brings together representatives from 20 groups with an interest in housing affordability. Included are grassroots groups, civil rights organizations, municipal planners, state agencies and the Homebuilders and Remodelers Association of Connecticut.

    “The only things on the agenda are the things that everyone could agree to,” he said. It is a departure from previous agendas crafted with input from a smaller steering committee.

    The group’s agenda in the week leading up to the start of the legislative session was still in draft form. It revolved largely around funding requests to create more affordable housing and to better support struggling renters.

    It did not include calls for zoning reforms like the “Fair Share” model being promoted by other advocates that would spread out the need for affordable housing across the state with mandated targets that vary from town to town and region to region. It also did not include the proposal for more affordable housing opportunities within a half-mile of train or bus stations that was part of the group’s agenda last year.

    “There’s not consensus in the group right now,” Ghio said of the zoning reforms, though he said that could change as the group finalizes its agenda. The advocacy coalition is next set to meet Jan. 4.

    “I think we’re going to keep working on that,” he said. “Land use reforms are critical to expanding housing development in the state, not just affordable housing. The state has for a very long time underbuilt new housing and that’s why we have the housing crisis.”

    ‘Fair Share’

    A separate coalition of more than 45 mostly nonprofit social service and advocacy groups called Growing Together Connecticut has taken up the banner of zoning reform. The group was launched earlier this year by the Hartford-based Open Communities Alliance, a group that started almost a decade ago to address racial segregation.

    The new consortium brings together advocates in the realms of housing, civil rights, medicine and the faith community to push for building up existing urban communities and more affordable housing options in the suburbs.

    Erin Boggs, the founding executive director of Open Communities Alliance, said in a December press release that the state is “in the depths of a housing affordability crisis.”

    “There are over 135,000 households in Connecticut who earn only 30% of median income – that’s about $30,000 for a family of 4 – and pay over half of that income towards housing costs,” she said.

    Housing is considered affordable when a household does not pay more than 30% of its income on expenses including mortgage or rent, utilities and taxes.

    A 2020 report from Open Communities Alliance said 10,200 households in southeastern Connecticut meet those criteria. The group is advocating for zoning reform that would spread that need more equitably across the region instead of concentrating affordable housing in urban areas.

    Boggs said a model akin to the “Fair Share” framework used in New Jersey could generate 300,000 housing units affordable to moderate- and low-income households over ten years in this state.

    New Jersey towns for three decades have been required to provide affordable housing based on a state supreme court ruling, according to the Associated Press.

    The concept has been raised as a bill in the Connecticut General Assembly since 2021 but has not made it into law.

    The previous proposal would have required the state Office of Policy and Management and Department of Housing to figure out how many units each municipality must build to take up its fair share of the housing need. Factors include how much a given municipality brings in from taxes, its median income, the percentage of housing stock already considered affordable, and the poverty rate.

    Then it would be up to the towns to decide how to achieve the goal.

    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.

    The alliance’s calculations show the share assigned to towns in the southeastern Connecticut region might range from a goal of 311 units in Salem to 937 units in Groton.

    Growing Together Connecticut is also advocating for more investment in municipalities that are helping the state meet its housing needs and more protections for tenants against unfair practices, according to the press release.

    Budget items

    The HOMEConnecticut draft agenda includes a request to double the state Department of Housing’s Rental Assistance Program, from $72 million in the current budget to $140 million. He said the increase would account for inflation and provide housing vouchers for roughly 2,400 more households.

    His organization’s research indicates rent prices in the state have gone up 32% since 2017, according to Ghio.

    Housing vouchers through the rental assistance program make up the difference between qualifying households’ income and the cost of rent. In all of New London County except Colchester and Lebanon, where the threshold is higher, a family of four making up to $56,300 would qualify.

    The group is also asking for more investment in funds administered by the state Department of Housing to provide grants and loans for affordable housing developers. That includes a requested increase from $100 million to $150 million in the Affordable Housing Program, known as FLEX, and from $50 million to $75 million in the Housing Trust Fund.

    He said the state has provided significant funding for those two programs over the past ten years.

    “The problem is that the problem’s too great. The need is too great,” he said. “And even though we’re fortunate to have had those investments, it just comes nowhere near to meeting the need.”

    Other priorities in the draft agenda included a request for $5 million to help voucher holders find housing, a need Ghio said was highlighted by recent reporting from Hearst Connecticut Media Group that said half of vouchers issued to help low-income residents have gone unused since 2020. Also included is a request for a $5 million pilot program to promote local housing inspections.


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