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New study examines barriers to multifamily housing in CT towns

erin boggs.webp
Erin Boggs, Executive Director for Open Communities Alliance (a Connecticut non-profit group) at her office in Hartford, Connecticut, September 10, 2019.

In at least 12 Connecticut towns, there are major impediments to building multifamily housing that’s affordable, and many of these barriers exist in the name of preserving the towns’ character, a new study says.

The study from the Open Communities Alliance examines zoning policy and land use in East Lyme, Farmington, Guilford, Monroe, New Canaan, North Branford, Old Saybrook, Shelton, Simsbury, Stonington, Wallingford and Weston.

Some of the barriers outlined in the report include rules requiring developers to get special permission from planning and zoning commissions for multi-family housing, age restrictions on affordable housing that make it difficult for families with children to obtain housing, and a focus on large-lot single-family homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.

The study says that the zoning decisions push out multi-family housing that’s typically more affordable to families with low incomes.

In the towns examined, single-family housing typically didn’t need approval from planning and zoning commissions while multi-family housing always did, which slows down the process and discourages developers from building, alliance staff said in an interview.

Typically, multifamily housing is possible only in commercial or special districts and multi-family housing with more bedrooms is discouraged. This means that it’s harder for low-income families with children to live in these towns and use the school systems in wealthier towns, the report says.

Much of the zoning policy exists in the name of preserving “single-family” character, “small town” character, or “New England” character, the study says.

” … This ambiguous and subjective term is often cited in POCDs [Plans of Conservation and Development] and zoning regulations as justification for maintaining single-family predominance,” the study says.

These policies also contribute to segregation in the towns, according to the study.

CT169Strong, a group that advocates for local oversight on zoning issues, said in a statement that it disagrees strongly with the conclusion that white neighborhoods have a higher focus on single-family homes.

“Market value is market value and individuals and families make numerous cost-based decisions every day, including where to buy food and what to buy, whether to bring lunch from home to work, what type of car to purchase, and housing choices are no different,” the statement read in part.

Affordable housing and zoning have seen heightened focus in Connecticut and nationwide in recent years as house and rent prices spike. Connecticut has a shortage of about 87,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to extremely low income renters, according to estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“I think this report is a really nice vehicle for a lot of towns to do some real self-reflection and make some changes,” said Erin Boggs, executive director at the alliance.

The study is a follow-up to a 2021 report.

Several of the towns studied are working on their affordable housing plans, which must be finished this summer under a 2017 law. Monroe First Selectman Ken Kellogg said his town is working on its plan, although sewerage capacity has posed a barrier.

Many towns officials across Connecticut have said a lack of sewage infrastructure makes it difficult to build more housing. Most homes in Monroe rely on septic systems, Kellogg said.

The town recently started allowing mixed-use development where, for example, apartments might be above businesses. And there are a handful of new apartment developments planned that have units set aside as affordable, he added.

“I know we’re among the towns that don’t have a lot of affordable housing stock … but we’re trying to address it,” Kellogg said.

Every town has unique needs and natural resources that make developing housing difficult, the CT169Strong statement says. For instance, New Canaan contains a “significant number” of wetlands and reservoirs.

The 12 towns were selected based on a variety of factors including high housing costs, high levels of segregation, high wealth and low percentages of multi-family housing, said Sam Giffin, data and policy analyst with the alliance. The study was based on a document review.

“In this day and age, it still surprises me how little focus there is on the issue of racial segregation in these planning documents,” Giffin said.

The report suggests what’s called a “fair share” policy as a possible solution to the lack of affordable housing. The policy would assess the need on a regional basis, then require towns to plan and zone for a certain number of affordable housing units.

House Bill 5204 proposes such a policy. It was approved by the Housing Committee last month.

“It’s clear that we need to do a lot more to promote more inclusive housing across all kinds of towns in Connecticut,” Boggs said in an interview.

While the bill has gotten support from many housing experts and advocates, it’s also met opposition from local officials.

Alexis Harrison, a Fairfield zoning commissioner, said the bill would mute local control. It’s been a common complaint from opponents of the bill who say the state shouldn’t impose a “one-size-fits all” approach to zoning.

“It’s very vague on how it would actually work and how we would arrive at the fair share allocation,” Harrison said in a previous interview.

CT169Strong also said the legislation could create more traffic, water runoff and congestion.

“Just because you create more affordable homes in suburbs does not mean the town itself is affordable,” the statement says.

Supporters have said the lack of affordable housing stems from a supply-and-demand issue – there hasn’t been enough affordable housing construction in recent years in Connecticut and rising housing costs have left many paying more than a third of their income in rent.

The bill charges the Office of Policy and Management with assessing the need for affordable housing and developing the methodology for divvying up the share of units among towns.

The methodology would be based on a town’s wealth, median income compared to other towns in the region, percentage of housing stock that’s multifamily, and poverty rate, according to the bill language.

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