State lawmakers lay foundation for affordable housing focus
Housing affordability is among the priorities for lawmakers across the state this legislative session, and southeastern Connecticut is no exception.
A proposal to assign cities and towns specific affordable housing goals is back while Republican state Rep. Devin Carney, Old Lyme, is looking to expand the types of housing that qualify as affordable in state zoning law.
Returning state Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, D-Groton, wants a cap on rent.
Senate Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by a two-to-one margin, set up affordable housing as a high priority by reserving a space for it in the form of Senate Bill 4.
State Sen. Martha Marx, D-New London, said Senate Bill 1 through Senate Bill 10 represent concepts – ranging from housing to domestic violence prevention to energy – that are most important to the majority party’s 24 Senators.
Preliminary language in the Senate’s fourth bill simply calls for “fair and equitable housing opportunities in every community in the state.”
Marx said the details will emerge over time.
The legislature convened Jan. 4 for an intensive five-month session, compared to three months in odd-numbered years. Any lawmaker this year can submit bills on any topic. Bills are then assigned to committees based on the subject matter.
“As we sit in committee and we think there’s some bills that will work well as part of a Senate bill, we’ll put them there,” Marx said.
Marx said housing affordability is critical to the state’s economy because Connecticut needs more workers, and workers need homes.
“Workforce and housing are priorities, and they go hand in hand,” she said.
The state’s chief manufacturing officer said last week in Groton that Electric Boat is currently struggling to hire the 2,000 to 3,000 additional workers it needs to deliver two Virginia-class submarines a year as well as a Columbia-class sub. And there’s the ongoing study about how the United States and the United Kingdom can help Australia develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines that could lead to more work for Electric Boat.
One legislative proposal returning this year involves the Fair Share planning and zoning model, which is spearheaded in the state by the Open Communities Alliance and a coalition called Growing Together Connecticut. The model works by spreading the need for affordable housing across the state instead of allowing continued concentration in urban areas.
The legislation died in committee last year.
Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, said there already was a significant gap between available housing options and the people who need them. Then came the regional hiring boom.
“Even using a really conservative estimate for the need for affordable housing units in eastern Connecticut, the situation is pretty dire,” she said. “Not even considering new jobs that are being created with additional funding for the sub base, the region’s already missing about 10,000 units of housing. And with the economic boom that’s anticipated coming from these contracts in Groton, the need is going to be exponentially greater than that.”
Housing is considered affordable when people living there don’t pay more than a third of their income on housing related expenses including mortgage or rent, utilities and taxes.
A 2020 report from the alliance identified the need for affordable housing by looking at how many people across the state made 30% of the area median income – known as “extremely low income” households in federal parlance – while paying more than 50% of that income on housing related expenses. In southeastern Connecticut, there were 10,200 households in serious need of affordable housing.
The alliance’s calculations show the share assigned to towns in the southeastern Connecticut region could range from a goal of 311 units in Salem to 937 units in Groton.
Last year’s Fair Share proposal would have required the state Office of Policy and Management and Department of Housing to figure out how many units each city and town must build so that there’s enough affordable housing for the estimated 135,000 households that need it. Then it would be up to the towns to decide how to achieve the goal.
This year, Boggs said there will be more detail built into the bill rather than leaving it all up to the state agencies to determine. She cited the use of bonus points as a way to lower the overall number of units assigned to a municipality “fairly substantially.”
That means municipalities would need to come up with fewer affordable housing units if the ones they do create are focused on areas that “there’s a particular need for,” according to Boggs. She said those might include rents affordable to the lowest income levels and units that will fit families who need two- or three-bedrooms.
Rep. Carney said zoning issues related to affordable housing are always a “hot topic” throughout the state, including the towns he represents: Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Westbrook.
“For me, local decision making is what I’m on the side of. I do not like to see the state take over what a municipality needs or wants,” he said. “To be honest, that’s where a great deal of the pushback comes from, is big government in Hartford telling a municipality what it must do.”
One of the most long-standing – and controversial – mechanisms for promoting affordable housing in the state takes the form of state statute 8-30g, which allows developers to take their case to court when their projects can’t make it past local zoning commissions.
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.
A development is considered affordable under 8-30g when at least 30% of the units are set aside for households making less than 80% or 60% of the area median income.
For most of New London County, the median income is $102,700. That means a family of four would have to make less than $90,080 at the low-income level or $67,560 at the very low-income level to qualify.
Only three cities and towns in southeastern Connecticut have met the 10% threshold: Norwich, New London and Groton.
Carney, a new House Republican Policy Chairman, introduced legislation with Republican leadership to expand the type of units considered affordable housing under the statute. The bill specifies properties that are affordable to lower income households – but not deed-restricted – would count toward the 10% threshold. Known as naturally-occurring affordable housing, the term refers to homes that households in lower income brackets can afford to buy or rent without subsidy.
He brought up the example of a three-bedroom Cape-Cod style home that a low-income family can afford to live in without spending more than 30% of their household income, but which has nothing in the deed ensuring it will remain affordable.
“The deed restriction piece eliminates those properties from consideration into that calculator,” he said. “We felt that should be included.”
Returning state Rep. Aundre Bumgardner, D-Groton, cited a situation at Branford Manor in Groton as the impetus for a series of bills seeking to protect tenants’ rights.
Unresolved concerns over mold and other living conditions at the 440-unit federally-subsidized housing development led to an effort by residents to bring their case to the attention of local, state and federal officials.
He said ongoing efforts to form a tenants union at Branford Manor with help from the Connecticut Tenants Union led to some of the bills he introduced or co-sponsored.
One of them would prohibit rent increases in excess of 2.5% each year at mobile home parks. A separate bill would establish the same cap across the all types of rentals and would set up rules for no-fault evictions. Current law protects the elderly population and people with disabilities from being evicted at will, but does not protect the broader population once a lease is up.
Other legislation would address areas including tenants’ union protections, rental assistance funding and a winter eviction moratorium.
Bumgardner was first elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives in 2015, serving one term. He returned this year to Hartford as a Democrat with experience as a Groton town councilor and a member of the City of Groton Planning & Zoning Commission.
“As soon as I got to the building, I was really struck by how often I would hear from legislators, interest groups, and advocates regarding how they expect housing issues to really be at the forefront of legislative decision making this session,” he said.