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    Thursday, May 30, 2024

    State Senate passes housing bill

    The state Senate spent nearly the entire last day of the legislative session trapped in a filibuster, with debate over a watered-down version of a omnibus housing bill stretching more than nine hours before lawmakers passed the measure Wednesday night mostly along party lines.

    With limited time on the last day of a legislative session, the minority party holds more power to filibuster bills by introducing amendments and simply talking until the clock strikes midnight. Although the legislature has a mechanism to end debate, it’s rarely used. The state has a tradition of unlimited debate.

    Senate Bill 998, which aims to improve tenants’ rights and housing quality, heads next to Gov. Ned Lamont’s desk for his signature.

    The bill’s passage marks a bittersweet moment for housing advocates and lawmakers who pushed all session for statewide zoning reform that they say would have led to substantial increases in Connecticut’s stock of affordable housing.

    One such zoning reform with mandates for towns was yanked from the bill last week. The other didn’t get a vote on the House floor.

    Connecticut lacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to the lowest-income renters, and thousands more are paying more than a third of their income to housing costs.

    “We’re trying to hold onto something that worked 50 years ago,” said Housing Committee chair Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport. “And now we have more people in Connecticut. We have people of all income levels.

    “It has to be inclusive. We can’t build housing projects anymore where you stick low-income people to the side where nobody can see them and then you have all the other people in these houses and buildings,” she said.

    The bill notably increases the amount municipalities are allowed to charge for code violations from $250 to $2,000, which officials hope will push landlords to improve sub-par rental housing.

    State senators’ discussion on the bill that’s primarily focused on tenants’ rights and housing quality touched on a wide array of topics including affordable housing law, economics, zoning reform, local control and even the game of hopscotch.

    Zoning

    Through the session, zoning reform has been top-of-mind for many lawmakers and advocates. Research shows that restrictive local zoning ordinances in Connecticut are tied to segregation along income and racial lines, and experts say these ordinances make it hard to build enough multi-family housing to meet demand.

    Last week, lawmakers were negotiating a way to include a zoning policy known as “fair share,” which would have required the state to assess the regional need for more affordable housing and divide that need between municipalities. The towns would then be required to plan and zone for a certain number of housing units.

    The mandates were stripped from the bill, although it still includes measures that require the state to conduct the housing needs assessment, find a methodology to divide up the need, and tell towns how many units they’d need to have to fulfill the need.

    Democrats have said it’s for informational purposes, but “fair share” opponents say they fear it’s a way to set up for mandates.

    The bill also puts the Office of Responsible Growth into statute. The office existed because of a years-old executive order.

    That office is integral to another zoning reform proposal that died before a vote on the House floor this session known as Work, Live, Ride. That proposal would have offered certain state infrastructure funds to towns that opt to create transit-oriented communities, increasing residential density near train or bus stations.

    The bill does include one measure that offers school districts a 5% point increase in their reimbursement rates for school building projects if they’re located in an “inclusive municipality” as determined by the Department of Housing.

    The bill language has a handful of parameters for an “inclusive municipality,” including that it has adopted and maintains zoning codes that promote fair housing.

    Zoning reform made up the bulk of debate Wednesday, although no such mandates are included in the bill.

    Opponents have objected to proposals for statewide zoning reform, saying it divests towns of local control and imposes onerous, one-size-fits all requirements on municipalities.

    “I am very deeply concerned that this bill is the camel’s nose under the tent of creating one of the most significant, unfunded mandates on our towns and cities in our state’s history and significantly undoing traditions of local control of our towns and cities,” said Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich.

    Moore argued that the state needs to consider ways to ensure people aren’t pushed out of certain, wealthier areas.

    “If we’re going to build an inclusive Connecticut, we have to build for everyone and we have to learn how to live together,” she said.

    Tenants’ rights

    While zoning reform has caused the most political consternation over the past few days, the bill’s mandates that will affect residents in the coming months are primarily focused on tenants’ rights and housing quality.

    Since 2021, Connecticut has seen a growing movement to organize renters and form tenants’ unions. These groups have helped draw more attention across the state to some of the issues tenants face, including shoddy and unsafe housing.

    S.B. 998 would require that tenants be given the chance to walk through apartments before renting them and limits what landlords can charge for screening reports. They’d also be required to give tenants copies of their screening reports.

    It curbs what landlords can charge in late rent fees and requires that the Department of Housing develop standardized leases in English and Spanish.

    It would ban small landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their sexual orientation. The change was one of the governor’s suggestions in his renters rights bill.

    The bill would also have courts remove online eviction records within 30 days if the case is withdrawn, dismissed or a judge rules in favor of the tenant. Online records have been shown to make it near-impossible for tenants who have evictions filed against them to find new housing, even if the tenant wins their case.

    Some Republicans argued against portions of the bill related to tenants’ rights.

    Housing Committee ranking member Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said some of the provisions weren’t necessary and put too much burden on landlords.

    “We’re adding more regulation and less freedom and choice for people,” Sampson said.

    Through the session, Sampson has frequently argued in support of the free market and against what he views as government interference in private contracts.

    Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, spoke extensively during the debate on the omnibus housing bill on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. STEPHEN BUSEMEYER / CT MIRROR

    Housing advocates have said that such measures help balance power between landlords and tenants and that they view the proposals as part of consumer protection, a role the government routinely fills.

    Moore said she’d heard from many tenants through the legislative process about rising rents and people being forced out of their housing.

    “It’s the beginning of trying to figure out what is best for Connecticut residents in the way of housing,” Moore said. “How do we develop housing and help people live in something that’s affordable and decent?”

    Republicans also criticized the bill because of the way it progressed through the legislature. It was initially a bill on tax abatements for conservation easements that passed the Senate.

    When it went to the House, several housing measures from other bills were added to the bill. It passed narrowly through the House with Republicans and some Democrats, mostly from Fairfield County, opposing the bill.

    Moore said Wednesday that she thinks the legislature has more to do on housing and sees the bill as just a start.

    “I’m appreciative of what we have here,” she said. “I think there’s more work to be done, but I think we’ve begun the work of building houses.”

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