At Griswold Hills in Newington, the state’s affordable housing law has worked the way it was intended
Jim and Nancy Vandergrift, he a retired businessman and she a retired teacher, were looking to downsize from a three-story condo in Rocky Hill a few years ago.
“We looked at a lot of places,” said Nancy.
The apartment complex they “really wanted” was Griswold Hills in Newington. They cited the “great feel” of community as well as the semi-rural setting and quality of construction.
“It’s very solidly built,” said Jim.
So they got on the waiting list for a couple of years, moved in a year ago and are happy they did.
“I love it here,” said another tenant, Carla Grasso, a seven-year resident. “As a single mom, I feel really safe. We all know one another and look out for one another.”
Griswold Hills has 128 units in nine low-rise, well-kept buildings constructed in what is called the “row and garden” style, sort of clusters of row houses. What is somewhat unusual about the complex is not its appearance but its origin — it is a set-aside development, meaning that some units are set aside for persons earning less than the median income.
This and many other set-aside developments in Connecticut were aided by a state law well known by developers, housing advocates and town officials as “8-30g.”
That is the statutory citation for the state’s Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Procedure, a process created 33 years ago to promote the development of affordable housing. The law, which allows developers to override local zoning restrictions, has been highly controversial almost since it passed in 1989. There have been several efforts to abolish it, and there may be one more, depending on the outcome of the gubernatorial election.
Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski has pledged to repeal 8-30g, saying at a recent press conference that the law “simply hasn’t worked,” a view shared by some local officials and residents.
Arthur T. Anderson, longtime Hartford housing specialist and co-developer of Griswold Hills in the mid-1990s with the late Marc Levine, has a different view. He said 8-30g “is the only thing that has worked.” A number of lawmakers and housing advocates agree with him.
The contrasting views highlight one of the deepest policy debates in the state: There is, by many accounts, a serious shortage of affordable housing in Connecticut, particularly for those in the low and moderate income ranges. The housing shortage makes their lives uncertain and, according to Gov. Lamont and others, hurts the state’s economy.
Can those problems be resolved without what one critic calls the “sledgehammer” of 8-30g?
The numbers suggest 8-30g has had a significant impact.
Earlier this year, veteran Hartford housing lawyer Tim Hollister, who has represented developers in scores of 8-30g cases, and his colleague Andrea Gomes used state housing data to estimate that since 1990, 8-30g has spurred the creation of about 8,500 affordable housing units, mostly rental apartments, and another 18,000 market-rate units in set-aside developments such as Griswold Hills. Market-rate units in set-aside developments tend to be less expensive than comparable units in all-market rate complexes.
Nonetheless, 8-30g by itself has not solved the state’s shortage of affordable housing. But, advocates say, it wasn’t intended to.
“It was meant to be one tool in the toolbox,” said Kiley Gosselin, executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable housing.
Residents of a certain age may recall that housing prices surged in the 1980s, causing concerns about increased homelessness; residents being forced to spend too much of their incomes on housing; teachers, public safety officers and other essential workers being unable to afford to live in the towns where they worked; and young adults being priced out of the towns where they grew up.
Also, as the late UConn law professor Terry Tondro, a land use expert, observed in a 2001 law review article, the high cost of housing was making it difficult for companies to attract workers, even for major Fairfield County corporations to attract executives.
In short, the state needed more affordable housing, and the status quo wasn’t getting it built.
In response, Gov. William O’Neill named a Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing in 1988, of which Tondro and Anderson were members.
What the commission did was make it harder for a local zoning authority, like the Planning & Zoning Commission, to turn down an application for an affordable housing project.
Let’s say a developer wants to build a multi-family, mixed-income apartment complex. The developer needs approval of a site plan, and also may need a zone change. Then imagine the P&Z denies the application.
Prior to 8-30g, the developer could take an appeal to Superior Court. But the court acted on the premise that the zoning authority acted properly, even if the denial was for vague or nebulous reasons such as “adversely affects community character” or “unsuitable at that location.” So the burden of proof was on the developer to show that the P&Z improperly rejected the application, often a steep challenge.
The significant aspect of 8-30g is that it flipped the burden of proof. Now if a local zoning board turns down an application that is 8-30g compliant — meaning at least 30% of the unit income is restricted for a period of 40 years — the onus is on the local commission to show that its denial was for specific reasons related to public health or safety, that these interests clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing, and that the public interests cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the proposal.
The law has been tweaked and clarified over the years, notably by a second Blue Ribbon Commission in 2000, but its core is intact.
A town is exempt from 8-30g review if 10% of its housing is deemed affordable, defined as government subsidized or deed restricted for lower-income residents. Per the 2000 revisions, towns can win a four-year moratorium from 8-30g review if they are making progress in producing affordable housing.
The 10% question
The appeals act has had critics since day one; Stefanowski is hardly the first to find fault with it. He has pointed to the fact that relatively few towns (actually 31, up from 25 in 1990) have reached the 10% threshold as evidence the law doesn’t work.
But longtime housing lawyer and policy advocate Rafie Podolsky, who served on both Blue Ribbon Commissions, said the 10% level is often misunderstood. It is not a regulation or legal mandate, he said, but rather an “off-on switch” for when a city or town is deemed to have enough affordable housing so as not to need the 8-30g process.
Connecticut’s 8-30g law was adopted from a Massachusetts “Anti-Snob Zoning” statute that contained the 10% figure, he said.
“There’s no magic to the 10% figure,” said Hollister, the housing lawyer. "It was a standard adopted from a successful statute in another state.”
Podolsky acknowledged that many towns will have difficulty reaching the 10% level but said most can aspire to a moratorium, or a temporary suspension of appeals under 8-30g, achieved with either an increase of 2% of affordable units or by a system of housing unit-equivalent points. That would give the towns time to plan where they want affordable housing and then work with developers to build it.
Since 2000, a dozen towns have been awarded moratoriums, of which five are still active, and a few towns have gotten two moratoriums.
Hollister has discerned a “cycle” in 8-30g projects over the years.
It goes something like this: A developer proposes a set-aside development. The P&Z turns it down. They go to court. The court reverses the denial. The project is built. The town puts a picture of it on its website to show its commitment to affordable housing.
That’s sort of what happened with Griswold Hills.
The developers initially wanted more units and more income-restricted units. They were turned down, went to court, won, then negotiated an agreement with the town. The complex has 128 units, 64 of which are offered at market rate and 32 to persons who make no more than 60% of area median income. Another 16 are offered to renters at 50% of median income and 16 to persons who make no more than 25% of median income.
In addition to income ceilings, there are also income floors. “You have to be able to pay the rent,” said Renee Starkowski, the manager of the complex.
The income ranges and rent ceilings are set by a federal formula, reflecting the fact that the project was funded by Low Income Housing Tax Credits. A one-bedroom at market rate goes for $1,335, while a 60% AMI renter pays $1,174, a 50% tenant pays $978 and a 25% tenant pays $489.
Griswold Hills was one of the earlier set-aside projects. People in neighboring condominium developments were worried it would hurt their property values. It didn’t. “You can’t blame people for being apprehensive,” said Anderson.
Also, it was not clear that a mix of market rate and low income apartments would work. It has. “I’ve never seen any animosity, not a bit,” said Starkowski, who has overseen the property for five years.
It resembles other apartment complexes in the area. There’s a diverse mix of white- and blue-collar workers and retirees. Some young couples move out to buy a house and start a family, older couples — sometimes the very ones who sold their homes to the former tenants — move in. There’s a party at Christmas and other activities, at least in non-Covid times.
The popularity of Griswold Hills is reflected in the waiting lists. For 60% and 50% units, the waiting list is four to five years. The waiting list for 25% apartments is longer; they almost never turn over, she said.
Griswold Hills “has been very successful,” said former Newington Mayor Thomas McBride.
Starkowski said the beauty of mixed-income projects such as Griswold Hills is that they provide housing for people who are often “lost in the shuffle,” those that have an income but not a high income. “It serves a sector (of the population) that is often forgotten.”
If she had one wish, it would be for better coordination among the various housing programs. She said she gets frequent calls from people who don’t know what’s out there, or what they qualify for, or how to find it.
Pros and cons
Despite the success of projects such as Griswold Hills, 8-30g still draws strident opposition. Opponents say it usurps local zoning authority, allows developers to build whatever they want wherever they want, allows buildings that are out of scale in their neighborhoods, can cause traffic issues and crowd local schools.
Evonne Klein, who has served as state housing commissioner and Darien first selectman, said towns derive their authority, including their zoning authority, from the state, and that state law requires local zoning regulations to provide for housing for people with low and moderate incomes, and provide for multi-family housing.
She said 8-30g is not a free-for-all for developers. They still must comply with local traffic, utility, wetland and other regulations. Also, towns sometimes win 8-30g appeals, on environmental, topographical or historic preservation grounds.
“Towns are not without defenses,” said Hollister.
Klein, who now heads the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, said the shortage of affordable housing is acute. “We have people sitting in shelters who have vouchers but no place to use them, and we have people with good jobs who can’t find housing they can afford.”
Also, they say, the school crowding concerns are a bit of a red herring. “One-and two-bedroom apartments, the typical mix in an 8-30g development, don’t have that many kids. Ironically, perhaps, most of the kids live in single family homes,” said Hollister.
This was illustrated by a review of by the Partnership for Strong Communities of Heritage Glen in Farmington, a set-aside development with 68 townhouse apartments, 31 affordable and 37 market-rate. There were 21 children spread among four Farmington public schools.
Housing advocates have made some progress at zoning reform with a significant revision of the state’s zoning enabling act in 2021, but as the Mirror has reported, no zoning reform bills passed this year, nor did a bill that would have required a study of the effects of 8-30g, which housing advocates viewed as a Trojan horse for gutting the law.
But since most, Stefanowski included, agree the state needs more affordable housing, there is middling good news: it turns out there are other tools. For one, more than two dozen communities have adopted inclusionary zoning requirements, which means that when a developer builds multi-family housing, a percentage of the units — 14% in Darien, for example — must be affordable.
Also, some local housing authorities are expanding their properties. For example, the Fairfield Housing Authority created a nonprofit development entity, the Fairfield Housing Corp, which built 50 units of affordable housing in 2018 and has another 40-unit project in the pipeline, said executive director Carol Martin. The town has taken a number of other steps to promote affordable housing, including the creation of an affordable housing trust fund and enacting an inclusionary zoning measure.
In addition, there appears to be an increase in “friendly 8-30gs,” where instead of going to court, the developer and the town work out an agreement, or the developer simply agrees not to go to court if a project is turned down. “We’re seeing more and more” friendly 8-30gs, said Hollister. How many were inspired by the presence of 8-30g is hard to calculate.
Klein said Darien hasn’t gone to court over an 8-30g project in about 15 years but instead worked out agreements for a half-dozen affordable projects. Carol Martin said while controversial 8-30g projects, such as a current proposal in New Canaan, still make the news, many projects simple move ahead quietly and get built.
Finally, the 2021 zoning legislation required that each town file an affordable housing plan with the state by June 1 of this year. To date, about 65% of municipalities have filed plans, and most of the rest have filed letters asking for more time.
On the negative side, towns whiffed on an opportunity to invest in housing by only budgeting about one percent of the $1.5 billion they received in federal stimulus funds for housing-related projects.
This doesn’t mean the people are homeless, although a small percentage are. Rather it means people are paying more than 30%, and in many cases more than 50%, of their incomes on housing, and likely living in crowded conditions.
But 8-30g wasn’t created to solve the overall housing problem; as Gosselin and others have said, it was envisioned as one way to produce more affordable housing. “It’s not a panacea,” said Anderson, “but it’s better than not having any tools.”
This reporting was made possible, in part, through generous support from Robert W. Fiondella and the Fiondella Family Trust.