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CT housing progress isn’t ‘meeting the moment,’ lawmakers say

Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and Planning and Development co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw watch votes come in on House Bill 5390 on May 3, 2024, in Hartford.
Ginny Monk
/
CT Mirror
Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and Planning and Development co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw watch votes come in on House Bill 5390 on May 3, 2024, in Hartford.

The most recent legislative session saw the failure of two significant and controversial pieces of housing legislation: a bill that would encourage more density near train and bus stations, and another that would have protected most renters against evictions that occur when their leases end.

It’s left advocates and lawmakers frustrated with the slow progress of policies that aim to expand affordable housing in Connecticut.

The Democrats’ major housing bill — an omnibus bill that included a wide range of solutions — will just scratch the surface, advocates and lawmakers said. The bill notably allows the conversion of nursing homes to multi-family housing without a special hearing before town zoning commissions and offers towns incentives to build more “middle housing,” or homes such as duplexes, triplexes or townhomes.

The entire country is grappling with a shortage of housing units. Connecticut is short about 92,500 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest-income residents.

“I don’t know that we passed anything that kind of meets the moment,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. He called the work of the most recent session “painful incrementalism.”

The housing crisis has metastasized in recent years and grown more acute since the COVID-19 pandemic. Statewide homelessness is on the rise. Thousands are paying too much of their income to housing costs. There are few homes available for purchase. Apartment vacancy rates are low.

Experts have attributed the lack of affordable housing in Connecticut to restrictive local zoning ordinances that make it hard to build multi-family housing on most of the state’s land. This disproportionately shuts people with low incomes and people of color out of certain towns.

Still, housing and particularly statewide zoning reform initiatives have been a sort of political third-rail in Connecticut for many years. And in an election year when incumbent lawmakers are defending their seats, it’s a particularly sensitive topic to broach.

“Building is unsettling for people and does have ramifications,” Rojas said. “ … it all feeds into this kind of political inability to actually make real movement on it.”

Senate leadership expressed similar sentiments.

“I would say overall, it’s still a deeply frustrating issue because we can’t make the progress we want to make,” said Senate Majority Leader Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.

The problem has been a long time coming, said Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, a former chair of the Housing Committee.

“The only difference I see is back then in the housing committee, we saw that we were heading toward a significant problem in terms of housing availability,” Lopes said. “And now it’s here.”

Housing Committee co-chair Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, said this was the first session in a decade in the legislature that she felt she didn’t accomplish as much as she wanted to.

“Do we really have the will to make these changes?” Moore said. “Because I do believe poverty is intentional. If we’re not willing to address poverty, then nothing is going to change.”

Eviction

Moore advocated for an eviction protection bill during the last legislative session that would have banned lapse-of-time evictions in larger apartment buildings. This protection already exists for certain groups in Connecticut, including senior citizens and people with disabilities.

The bill passed committee, but wasn’t called in the Senate. Rojas said the House didn’t have enough votes, and that the measure would have failed anyway.

Moore had planned to include the eviction protection in Senate Bill 6, which was originally the Senate Democrats’ wide-ranging housing priority bill. Most of the Democratic lawmakers signed on to support it, although there was some dissent within the caucus.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said she opposed the bill. She wanted to adjust it to only apply to larger cities, she said. Advocates of the bill said that wasn’t a compromise they wanted to make because they didn’t want the protections to be based on geography or population size.

“You have to be willing to work things through, … and if you’re not willing to work things through, then what’s going to happen is you turn everybody off, you don’t get your policy voted on,” Osten said during a forum on childhood poverty.

She also said that she didn’t want to write policies that create “winners and losers,” and that her district didn’t have tenant unions or larger apartment buildings, so she didn’t think it would be as relevant.

Tenant union organizer Luke Melankos-Harrison said they’d agreed to a one-year probationary period, so that the protection would kick in after one year of a lease.

“The idea of tenant rights changing drastically based on where you live in the state — we already have the fair rent commission version of that,” Melankos-Harrison said. “As an actual tenant, for your rights to be different based on what town you live in or whether you’re at 24,000 or 25,000 people, it’s just not great.”

Connecticut only requires larger towns to have fair rent commissions.

He added that the tenant union group was dealing with a lot of misinformation around the issue.

“There are a lot of legislators who are not familiar with the issue, so there’s just kind of a lot of misinformation around the legislature that we had to work on dispelling,” he said.

Planning and Development Committee co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon, said there were some concerns about protecting good landlords and issues with a false narrative around the bill.

“I think the challenge is that there was a narrative built around that bill that it meant that you could never evict someone,” Kavros DeGraw said. “I think that’s where the uphill battle really was, and you know there are plenty of good landlords out there and unfortunately there are some not so good landlords. You have to protect people.”

Moore said she thought lawmakers were listening too much to landlords over tenants.

“It’s really frustrating,” Moore said. “I don’t know what the problem has been in the past. I thought maybe the problem was that there were landlords chairing the committee, but I don’t think that anymore. I think it’s the political will of people to do this.”

Advocates said lapse-of-time evictions are often used against tenants who complain about conditions or as retaliation for forming a tenants union.

The lack of apartments makes it harder for tenants to have negotiating power, said Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities. If there aren’t other apartments to go to, tenants have a harder time arguing for repairs and evictions mean it’s much harder to find a new place to live.

“Yes, there’s a future state where we have enough housing and landlords do not have the same sort of dominant negotiating position that they have now,” Ghio said. “That’s not the truth now, and it might not be the truth ever.”

Landlord groups came with strong opposition to the bill, saying they use lapse-of-time evictions to get rid of tenants who cause problems.

“I kind of say ‘Let’s back up and say what is the problem that we’re trying to resolve?,’” said Kelly Kilham, president of the Connecticut Apartment Association. “I don’t know that I think there was a complete agreement about the intention of what it was trying to solve.”

Housing Committee ranking member Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe, said he wants to look at other ways to hold bad landlords accountable and ensure cities are answering residents’ concerns. He said that there needs to be a way to hold out-of-state landlords’ feet to the fire and that there should be easier ways to contact them.

He added that he wants to talk with the legislature’s Judiciary Committee about the problem.

“I’m not saying put people in jail, but if that’s what it takes is the threat of putting people in jail, whatever we need to do,” Scott said.

Kilham said the landlords want to see more focus on increasing housing stock, although they haven’t started work with any of the housing advocacy groups to help with zoning reform efforts. They supported Rojas’ bill to encourage middle housing, she said.

“I think that housing is such an important component here in Connecticut right now, especially,” Kilham said. “I think nationally, but here at home it’s important. We need supply, and I guess I think that we had an opportunity to have our voices heard.”

Majority leader bill

Rojas’ bill had a wide range of measures, including offering points toward getting a temporary moratorium from the state’s 8-30g law if towns allow middle housing without a special hearing in front of the zoning commission.

The 8-30g law offers court remedies to developers if their proposals for affordable housing are denied. Towns are exempt if at least 10% of their housing stock is designated affordable and can achieve temporary moratoriums as they build more affordable housing.

Scott said he also wants to work on more changes to 8-30g in the next legislative session. Planning and Development ranking member Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said it’s one of his priorities as well.

Fazio said he’d like to change the definition of affordable housing to include more types of housing and have a fixed denominator when figuring the 10%, so the goal doesn’t move as towns build more housing that’s not designated affordable.

He voted for Rojas’ bill, saying that while it wasn’t perfect, it did recognize the complexity of the issue.

“While there were things in it that I didn’t like as much, there were also things that I liked a lot,” Fazio said.

Rojas’ bill also included a requirement that landlords give 45 days notice of rent increases and required towns allow abandoned nursing homes to be turned into multi-family housing.

Planning and Development co-chair Sen. MD Rahman, D-Manchester, said it will likely take more than one legislative session to address the lack of affordable housing, but said the bill makes “important steps.”

“The bill provides a variety of incentives to towns and cities, allowing each community flexibility to develop housing in the manner that best suits their community’s needs,” Rahman said, in a written response to questions.

Maria Weingarten, a member of the group 169 Strong, said the group liked some aspects of the bill, but would have prefered it didn’t allow development “as-of-right,” or without a special hearing before the zoning commission.

The group, which has opposed many land use reform efforts, also wants to see 8-30g reform, she said.

“I feel like it’s always Groundhog Day,” Weingarten said. “It really is what it is unfortunately. Sort of the same proposals get hashed out again and again. The only issue that’s truly missing is working with local leaders. A one-size policy will never work.”

Kavros DeGraw said she thinks there will be more work next session on zoning.

“Again, I think we will be looking at a variety of land use and zoning issues that give empowering tools to towns,” Kavros DeGraw said.

Work, Live, Ride

A proposal to push towns to increase density near train and bus stations from Desegregate Connecticut made it through the House — the farthest it’s come in recent sessions — before dying in the Senate.

Lawmakers say they ran out of time to call it.

“On the one hand if you told me in a short session you would get 90 votes in the House and the governor would be on board, that would be amazing,” said Pete Harrison, Connecticut director for the Regional Plan Association. “It’s really hard to do anything with a statewide zoning bill. On the other hand, to know we have the votes in the Senate and to not see it get called and see it get through is really frustrating.”

Duff said the bill would likely be back next year.

Rojas said because home is one of the most personal things in a person’s life, changes to zoning can feel personal. It makes it politically difficult to pass zoning legislation, he said.

“Those who are secure in their housing are comfortable and perceive change as a threat to the largest investment you’ll ever make,” Rojas said.

Republicans said they want to see a more nuanced solution.

“I think we really need to commit ourselves to a global solution to housing,” said Planning and Development ranking member Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven. “I think that’s going to involve a realistic transit-oriented development plan and a realistic reform of 8-30g.”

The proposal offered some priority funding of state dollars to towns that created transit districts — or denser districts with more housing near public transit. Towns would not be disqualified from getting funding if they did not create the districts.

Weingarten said she wants to see more consideration given to the “scale,” of nearby buildings in zoning proposals.

“At least it’s within the scale of what’s already existing, so it doesn’t stick out,” she said. “That’s reflective of what’s existing in the environment.”

Harrison said the bill aimed to allow towns to decide to build the districts and would allow community members to speak up about what they want to see in the transit districts.

“I’m very comfortable that the bill is really good policy, it’s good politics but really at the heart of what Work, Live, Ride is trying to do, it’s not really trying to solve it at the state level, it’s trying to create the space for local organizing,” he said.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

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