Affordable housing in ‘the home of home rule’
When it comes to affordable housing, some lawmakers from southeastern Connecticut are emphasizing the importance of local control as the start of the 2023 legislative session looms.
Aundre Bumgardner, Democratic state representative-elect for the 41st District, said the ability for local governments to set their own course is at the center of the district he called “the home of home rule.”
The recently redrawn district covers parts of Stonington and Groton. It no longer includes New London.
He pointed to layers of fire districts, boroughs and subdivisions in the district that each have their own ability to regulate land use.
“It is my belief that that is a strength of Groton, that neighborhoods really can define their future and maintain their character,” he said.
The idea of protecting a town’s character often comes up at the local level in the context for affordable housing. It has been invoked at zoning commission meetings in defense of the status quo when new developments are proposed. But housing advocates argue it is a vague term that contributes to discrimination against newcomers.
The legislature in 2021 passed a measure specifying the term cannot be used to deny an application for affordable housing unless the definition of character is “expressly articulated in regulations with clear and explicit physical standards.”
Bumgardner was first elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives in 2015. Twenty years old at the time, he went on to serve one term as the chamber’s youngest member. He will return to Hartford as a Democrat with experience as a Groton town councilor and a member of the City of Groton Planning & Zoning Commission.
“I’ve been intimately involved with planning and decision making as we’ve balanced unprecedented growth with (Electric Boat) and the need to grow housing, but also respecting the character of our communities,” he said.
He has been assigned to the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee, which is responsible for legislation related to an array of topics including housing, zoning and home rule.
Bumgardner said he intends to raise bills on housing-related subjects that support good cause evictions and the power of tenant unions.
The legislature in odd-numbered years gives individual lawmakers the opportunity to introduce bills on any subject, as opposed to the even-numbered years when bills are limited to those raised by committees.
In a district that has seen heated debate over short-term housing rentals, Bumgardner said that’s a conversation that needs to happen at the state level as well.
Short-term rentals, popularized with the rise of websites like Airbnb and Vrbo, involve stays lasting from one to 30 days.
“I’m absolutely concerned about these large corporations buying up homes in downtown Mystic in particular and converting them into tourist destinations,” he said. “Our neighborhoods are not zoned or regulated for that.”
It’s an issue that affects housing affordability in the district, according to Bumgardner. He said short-term rentals limit the housing stock, which drives up home prices, rent and property taxes.
Water and Sewer
For state Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, any discussion about affordable housing in the region needs to address infrastructure limitations that she said prevents multifamily construction in many of the small towns she represents.
“You can change all the zoning you want. If they don’t have water and sewer, they’re not going to be able to build,” she said.
Osten is co-chairman of the legislature’s powerful Appropriations Committee.
She said her work as a lawmaker when it comes to affordable housing has been to help towns secure funding for water and sewer systems across her 10-town district spanning Ledyard to Marlborough.
Osten said she’s been trying for three years to secure $3.7 million for Hebron to extend its water line from Amston Lake to the center of the town. She said residents are actively engaged in bringing affordable housing to town – “but without that, they can’t.”
Affordable housing advocates argue developers have found ways to build affordable housing developments without sewers when the site works. Other approaches include preserving existing homes through repair and maintenance of existing housing stock.
Osten was also critical of a 2021 change in the scoring process used by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority to administer federal tax credits to affordable housing developers. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program was established under the federal Tax Reform Act of 1986 to engage private interests in solving the affordable housing problem after public efforts failed.
The new system awards points in several categories to prioritize sustainable developments that serve more lower-income people in places with the most “opportunity” for them to thrive. The authority’s aim is to support development in areas that are desirable to live in but which do not have many affordable options.
Critics like Osten say the agency’s focus means more money goes to developers in the wealthiest parts of the state.
“It’s much more complicated than just having an affordable housing discussion,” she said. “So I talk a lot about infrastructure, I talk a lot about the policies that get made and I talk about the fact that they want to continue to push Western Connecticut to build affordable housing – and I think they should – but we waste time when we prioritize that end of the state and don’t prioritize our end of the state.”
State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said she has seen the need for affordable housing most vividly through her role on the Thames Valley Council for Community Action over the past quarter century. Among other things, the social service agency administers multiple programs with the goal of ending homelessness and providing affordable housing.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we know there’s quite a ways to go,” she said.
McCarty sees it as the towns’ responsibility first and foremost to offer “suitable housing” for different income levels and needs – on its own terms without state mandates.
“I don’t espouse heavy-handed approaches,” she said.
Efforts by the state over the past three decades to promote affordable housing despite local resistance have relied heavily on a statute known as 8-30g. The law 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. Once the threshold is met, developers no longer get an automatic appeal when they put forth plans that don’t meet zoning regulations.
McCarty pointed to Waterford as an example of a town that has had success working toward the 10% target. State calculations put the percentage at 5.62% as of last year.
A $16 million, 40-unit affordable housing development is going up on 16 acres next to the Target store on Route 85 in Waterford. Eighty percent of the units will be set aside for low-income households. Another developer has plans for 40 small houses on Great Neck Road, where 10% will be dedicated as affordable by state standards.
The 8-30g statute was brought to the forefront of the gubernatorial race this year when Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski said he wanted to repeal it during a September debate between himself, Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont and Independent candidate Rob Hotaling.
McCarty questioned the effectiveness of 8-30g but said she will be listening to conversations on the issue over the coming months.
Currently, 31 out of 169 municipalities have met the state’s 10% target for affordable housing, including Groton, New London and Norwich.
Bill Cibes, a former Democratic state representative for New London who was involved in the creation of 8-30g more than 30 years ago, told The Day earlier this year that the statute has not been as effective as he’d hoped.
He cited local resistance as the reason.
“If you look around to various towns, there are not a lot of towns, suburban towns, that have enough housing for low income people and people of color,” he said. “In many respects, it does not appear to me to be fair to expect that their teachers and their police officers and their town employees and the workers who work on the estates in those towns can’t live there.”
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