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CT budget proposal shows investments in housing likely this year

Gov. Ned Lamont speaks Thursday, Feb. 16, at a Bridgeport press conference announcing the housing priorities in his new budget proposal.
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CTMIRROR.ORG
Gov. Ned Lamont speaks Thursday, Feb. 16, at a Bridgeport press conference announcing the housing priorities in his new budget proposal.

The latest draft of the state budget for the next couple of years shows increased investments in housing, an early sign that officials may follow through on promises to take action on Connecticut’s housing crisis this session.

Documents also show agreement between Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature on spending $600 million in bonding for housing programs.

Millions in bonding are also earmarked for a homeownership program, building new housing and for retrofitting apartments in environmental justice communities — certain communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by climate change.

The budget approved by the Appropriations Committee last week, which will evolve as budget talks progress, also includes more money for the 211 system, housing vouchers and homelessness services.

“People deserve a roof over their head,” Lamont said in February when he announced his housing proposals. “That’s No. 1 in terms of getting your life back together. That’s what this means.”

Not all measures service providers and advocates asked for during the committee process will be fulfilled, and advocates have said that while the investments are a start, the housing problem won’t be solved over the course of one session.

As they move into the next stage of negotiations on the budget proposal, leadership of the Housing and Planning and Development committees plan to continue pushing for funding, particularly for homelessness services and zoning reform.

Housing has been a hallmark of this legislative session as lawmakers wrestle with how to improve housing affordability to ease cost burdens on thousands of residents and draw new workers and businesses to the state.

“I think there’s a sense of urgency in the legislature about making transformational investments in affordable housing and doing it now in this budget,” said Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, Housing Committee co-chair and a Democrat from Manchester.

The statelacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. Thousands of Connecticut renters are spending more than a third of their income on housing, and homelessness has started to rise.

Democrats proposed two housing omnibus bills earlier in the session that covered a variety of issues including renters’ rights, fair housing, environmental justice and a ban on wintertime evictions.

Zoning reform has also been a hot-button issue this session. Two proposals are at play, including one that would push towns to increase residential density near transit stations and another that would have the state assess regional needs for housing and have towns plan and zone to meet that need.

Bonding

Earlier in the session, Lamont announced his plan to spend $600 million over two years to build an estimated 6,400 new units of housing in Connecticut. The plan included funding for a homeownership program, workforce development housing, the Housing Trust Fund and flexible housing needs.

The Housing Trust Fund is a state fund created in 2005 that gives out grants to developers who want to build low to moderate income housing. Lamont has pushed for workforce housing in hopes of encouraging businesses to come to Connecticut.

Connecticut’s Time to Own programwould offer forgivable down payment assistance for homeowners.

“We are continuing to review both proposals and look forward to a robust negotiation process with the legislature to pass a state budget that is balanced and honors our fiscal guardrails while providing meaningful tax relief and investments to grow the economy,” said Julia Bergman, a spokeswoman for the governor, in a written statement.

The committee’s bonding proposal includes the money for the housing trust fund, flexible housing fund, and the Time To Own program. It would also add $50 million over two years to Connecticut’s Housing Receivership Revolving Fund.

The program has been underfunded, Luxenburg said. It allows the Department of Housing to take over large apartment complexes with serious code violations and repair them. The owner of the complex then repays the state for the work.

“There’s significant investment here in Time to Own, which is going to create a lot of new successes for first time homebuyers,” Luxenberg said. “There’s significant funding in here to create a remedy for the worst slumlords in the state.”

The bonding also includes $300 million for retrofitting apartments in environmental justice communities, a proposal that Sen. Marilyn Moore, a Democrat from Bridgeport and co-chair of the Housing Committee, put forward in the Senate Democrats’ housing priority bill, Senate Bill 4.

The bill has garnered support from environmental advocates who have said it will help reduce energy costs and prepare the aging housing stock for some of the effects of climate change.

Moore, who is co-chair of the General Obligation Bonding Subcommittee, said she opted to fund the measure through bonding because it’s a piece of infrastructure and fits in with Lamont’s overall ideas of how to best use bonding.

“We’ll see how the rest of it goes,” she said. “I just have to make sure that it stays in there. That’s not something I want to see cut down.”

Appropriations

Besides funding for housing measures, the Appropriations Committee’s budget proposes giving Connecticut’s 211 line $1.1 million in fiscal year 2024 and $1.38 million in 2025. The money would allow the housing crisis line to operate 24/7, according to committee documents. It’s operated on limited hours recently.

The proposed budget also includes just over $2 million per year for Project Longevity housing vouchers. The program aims to reduce gun violence in cities. Housing vouchers are distributed through Project Longevity in Hartford, Waterbury, Bridgeport and New Haven.

Additional money would expand use of the vouchers to Norwich.

The Appropriations budget also included $2.1 million per year to annualize cost living adjustments for housing and homeless service providers.

Homelessness services funding is still under negotiation, Luxenburg said. Providers had asked for$50 million in additional funding this session for the 211 line and to annualize cold weather services, among other services.

Last year marked the first in nearly a decade that Connecticut’s homeless population rose in the annual census of the unhoused.

“People across Connecticut are facing housing challenges unlike we’ve seen in recent years,” said Evonne Klein, chief executive officer at the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness, at a public hearing on the issue. “We need your help so that we can help.”

Zoning

Zoning reform has been one of the most hotly contested issues of the session, although funding for these measures is still under consideration. Housing experts argue that zoning reform is needed in order to improve affordability and reduce segregation statewide.

Many local zoning ordinances make it hard to build multi-family housing in Connecticut. Multi-family housing tends to be more affordable to people with low incomes.

Many local officials have said statewide reform would weaken local control and impose a one-size-fits-all approach to towns that have unique challenges. This session, a new concern has cropped up because implementation of a bill to encourage towns to institute transit-oriented development would mean that towns that don’t participate won’t get certain state funding for infrastructure projects.

The Work Live Ride proposal, pushed by Desegregate CT, would offer certain state money to towns that opt in to certain levels of residential density near train and bus stations.

It’s a land use concept known as transit-oriented development that aims to create walkable neighborhoods with apartments, businesses and easy access to public transportation.

As it stands, the Appropriations budget doesn’t fund the additional positions included in the bill, but says that the work should be completed with existing staff. Desegregate CT Director Pete Harrison said in order for it to work as efficiently as possible, the state would need to hire land use planners.

“We need to fund the state capacity to build the kind of stuff we need to build more businesses and more residents,” Harrison said in an interview. “ … The reality is we do not have the staff we need.”

The funding is still in negotiations, Planning and Development Committee leadership said.

Planning and Development co-chair Sen. MD Rahman, D-Manchester, said he thinks the bill is still workable and may get its funding.

“Obviously this is all part of the process,” said Rep. Eleni Kavros Degraw, a Democrat from Avon and co-chair of the Planning and Development Committee. “Now, we have to come up with something in between.”

The other major zoning reform bill on the table this session is also still under negotiations for funding. The bill, known as fair share, would have the state assess housing needs by region, then have towns plan and zone for a certain number of units based on the need.

It’s pushed by the group Growing Together Connecticut, a consortium of faith groups, advocates and housing experts. Funding for the bill, which passed out of committee, wasn’t mentioned in the early version of the Appropriations budget.

“Connecticut is one of the most expensive places to find housing in the country,” said Erin Boggs, executive director at Open Communities Alliance, one of Growing Together Connecticut’s members, at a press conference in December announcing the policy. “We are also one of the most segregated places in the country.”

Fair share is a means to fix those problems, Boggs said.

Luxenburg said he’s negotiating for funding, and the bill is not off the table.

“I wouldn’t read that the current version of the budget means that we’re not going to do fair share. It’s being actively negotiated as well,” he said.

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