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A lack of appetite for zoning reform has advocates, legislators regrouping

20210508_DesegregateCT_DeepRiver_YK_091.jpg
YEHYUN KIM
/
CTMIRROR.ORG
Christine Palm, state representative for Chester, Deep River, Essex and Haddam, speak at a rally for housing justice in 2021. No bills addressing affordable housing passed the state legislature this year.

Despite five years of advance notice that Connecticut towns would have to submit affordable housing plans by June 1, less than half of them made the deadline.

The deadline — established by a 2017 law that requires such plans every five years —marked an important date for affordable housing advocates in Connecticut.

As of Thursday, just 46% of the state’s towns had submitted plans to the Office of Policy and Management. Nineteen percent of the towns “proactively notified” the office that they wouldn’t meet the deadline and provided an anticipated date.

The state Office of Policy and Management plans to “determine appropriate next steps for reminding the delinquent municipalities of their responsibility,” spokesman Chris Collibee said.

But there didn’t seem to be much appetite for zoning reform during the recent legislative session, either — not a single bill aimed at solving the problems made it to the governor’s desk, and advocates are now planning their next steps.

Much of the opposition to zoning reform bills was centered on arguments that statewide reform would dilute local control. Opponents argued that towns were already working on their own plans and that legislators should wait to see the results before passing laws to mandate reform.

So the legislative session closed with no major zoning reform in a state that lacks tens of thousands of housing units that are needed to meet the demand from its lowest-income residents.

Advocates, legislators and analysts said zoning reform bills failed this session in part because of the short session, opposition based in local control arguments and a lack of understanding of what zoning reform would mean for Connecticut.

As legislators and advocates plan another push for land-use reform, education that attempts to address misconceptions around proposed bills, existing laws and types of housing developments will be a focus as they prepare for the next legislative session.

Legislators said they agree that the state needs more affordable housing.

“The fact of the matter to this day is we do not have enough housing in the state of Connecticut. Period,” said Rep. Quentin Williams, D-Middletown, co-chair of the housing committee.

The bills

The bills — House Bills 5429 and 5204 — sought to tackle what experts have long said are restrictive local zoning laws. These laws make it harder for developers to build multifamily housing, particularly in many of Connecticut’s suburban towns.

DesegregateCT, a group that pushed for transit-oriented development, is a program of the Regional Plan Association. Transit-oriented development is a land use concept that encourages development near public transit stations.

During the legislative session, lawmakers considered a bill that would have required towns to allow denser housing — at least 15 units per acre — within a half mile of a passenger, commuter rail or bus rapid transit station. Certain types of land such as wetlands and steep slopes would have been exempt.

The bill died in committee.

The other major piece of zoning reform legislation last session would have required the state’s Office of Policy and Management to assess the need for affordable housing regionally in Connecticut. Then, towns would share the responsibility to plan and zone for that need.

A town’s share would have been determined by its wealth, median income compared to nearby towns, percentage of housing stock that’s multifamily, and the poverty rate. That bill was voted out of committee, but didn’t get a vote on the House or Senate floors.

In argument against both bills, opponents said the reforms would have hindered local control and imposed one-size-fits-all solutions on municipalities.

What happened

Zoning reform met resistance, much of which stemmed from Fairfield County, said Rep. Joe Polletta, a Waterbury Republican and ranking member of the Housing Committee. There’s not enough support on either side of the aisle to pass such a bill, he said.

“The folks that have been opposed to the bill want to keep local control of zoning, and the bill has not given them that option,” said Polletta.

Opponents have cited local control and decried a one-size-fits-all solution to the state’s affordable housing problem.

Rep. Stephanie Thomas, D-Norwalk, said in a March interview that the transit-oriented development bill doesn’t work for all towns. For example, some areas already have single-family homes built near train stations, she said.

While she said she supports the idea of transit-oriented development, Thomas said the bill didn’t account for the needs of individual municipalities and isn’t the way to introduce the concept to Connecticut.

“I just feel so strongly that we cannot vote on a concept,” Thomas said. “We have to vote on the actual language. I am a huge proponent of affordable housing. I also am a huge proponent of transit oriented development. I just don’t think the language of the bill is what makes sense.”

Rep. Frank Smith, vice chair of the housing committee, said he thinks housing prices need to be contained through methods other than zoning reform. He said he supports bills such as one that passed during the session to establish more fair rent commissions in the state. The commissions receive rent complaints, conduct investigations and hold hearings, among other actions.

“I always felt when it comes to housing, it’s always better to err on the side of local decision making,” said Smith, D-Milford.

Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, said reform takes time. Her organization pushed for the fair share bill as a part of a coalition of groups called Growing Together Connecticut.

“Fair share is a big and meaningful proposal,” she said. “It’s transformative, and things like this don’t happen in one year, or two years.”

Pete Harrison, director of DesegregateCT, expressed a similar sentiment. He added that it’s often more difficult for major legislation to pass during a short session.

“That effort spring-boarded things,” Harrison said of the last session. “I feel like it’s a really similar trajectory for us, that we laid a really good foundation.”

Next session, the Regional Planning Association may look at other land use policies to support such as adjusting minimum lot sizes, said Melissa Kaplan-Macey, Connecticut director at the association.

Next steps

New federal priorities may incentivize change.

The Biden administration’s newly announced Housing Supply Action Plan includes incentives that tie federal grant dollars to certain zoning reforms, which experts say may push Connecticut lawmakers to pass such measures.

“Land use [reform] might appear to be controversial to some, but it’s clearly a priority on the national level,” Kaplan-Macey said.

Meanwhile, advocates and legislators are starting efforts to prepare for the next session.

Williams and other Democratic legislators are organizing informational sessions in the coming weeks — a tour of sorts — during which legislators will visit different types of housing developments across the state. He hopes this will clear up any confusion about what those developments look like in a community as well as combat misconceptions about the state’s existing affordable housing laws.

“I think right now we’ve focused on perceived solutions without having shared values, and I think we have to create that shared experience first and then move forward together,” Williams said.

Education will also be a focus of Growing Together Connecticut. The group also has a focus on finding ways to revitalize cities and will spend the summer gathering input from community members on solutions they think would work for their neighborhoods, Boggs said.

DesegregateCT will be fine-tuning its legislative recommendations and pushing awareness of the policies, Kaplan-Macey said.

“None of the major, major priorities got through, and that’s a good opportunity for all of us to say ‘Let’s hold the state’s feet to the fire,’” Harrison said. “There’s going to be a lot more pressure and a lot more work together on getting stuff through the next session.”

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