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Advocates: Bill to study affordable housing law is a veiled attack

A statue on the first floor of the State Capitol in Connecticut. A bill introduced during the 2022 legislative session proposes a study into one of the state’s affordable housing policies.
A statue on the first floor of the State Capitol in Connecticut. A bill introduced during the 2022 legislative session proposes a study into one of the state’s affordable housing policies.

A bill that purports to mandate a study into one of Connecticut’s foremost affordable housing policies appears to be a veiled attempt to weaken the statute, advocates and legislators said.

The bill would require that the Commissioner of Housing study the effects of a 1990 law commonly known as 8-30g. That law gives affordable housing developers the ability to challenge towns in court if their housing proposals are denied, even if they don’t meet local zoning regulations.

Municipalities that have at least 10% of total housing units set aside as affordable or government-assisted units are exempt.

If passed, the commissioner would need to produce a report on the law by Jan. 1, 2023.

Despite the bill’s innocuous language, public comment by supporters led some housing advocates to believe the study was intended as an attack on one of the state’s affordable housing policies.

“I have serious concerns that those who support S.B. 169 intend to use it as a vehicle for the dismantling of affordable housing legislation that has been enormously effective for more than three decades,” Greenwich resident Alma Rutgers said at the public hearing Thursday.

Typically, housing is considered affordable if a person spends up to a third of their income on housing costs. Connecticut lacks nearly 87,000 units that are affordable and available for renters with extremely low incomes, according to estimates from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Rents and housing prices have been rising in Connecticut, particularly over the past couple of years. Housing costs spiked in 2021, and experts expect them to continue to rise this year.

Rep. Jennifer Leeper, a Democrat from Fairfield, sponsored the bill. She said 8-30g had disproportionately affected a handful of towns, including Fairfield, where housing projects are adding “a tremendous amount of density.”

“There may not be a single issue that has been as divisive in our community of Fairfield as 8-30g has,” Leeper said.

Groups that submitted testimony in favor of the study included the Connecticut Association of Realtors, the Connecticut Council of Small Towns and Save the Sound, among others. Save the Sound requested that the study examine the climate resiliency of housing.

Other legislators, many from Fairfield County, spoke about problems with 8-30g such as a lack of local control and difficulty meeting the 10% threshold that exempts towns from the court appeals process outlined in 8-30g. Those legislators pushed for the study.

Rep. Laura Devlin, a Republican who lives in Fairfield, also gave testimony arguing for the bill. She said it had failed at its objective and said some existing neighborhoods that are affordable are not counted toward the 10% threshold.

“What 8-30g has done is create a path for incredible wealth-building among developers, as they are able to circumvent local zoning and exploit the statue for their own financial gain,” Devlin said in written testimony.

Rep. Raghib Allie-Brennan, a Democrat from Bethel, also spoke about the flaws in 8-30g and suggested taking it a step further than a study.

“I question the value of this additional step,” Allie-Brennan said of the study. “The longstanding deficiencies which have plagued this process are already extensively documented. What we need now is action.”

He asked the Housing Committee to consider an amendment to 8-30g that would award the equivalent of five housing units toward the 10% threshold to localities that develop, review and amend an affordable housing plan and enact regulations under 8-30g.

Housing advocates and some legislators spoke against the bill and in favor of 8-30g.

Rep. Roland Lemar, the Democratic majority caucus chair and a New Haven resident, said he resented attacks on the affordable housing law.

“It’s done exactly what it was supposed to do, which is create tens of thousands of private market affordable housing units across our state,” Lemar said. “It’s done exactly what we wanted it to do. … We didn’t become one of the most segregated states in the country on accident. It was through local control that that happened.”

The law has also kept housing affordability at the forefront of local officials’ minds, Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities, said in an interview.

Advocates and officials have said that restrictive zoning makes it difficult to construct new multi-family housing in Connecticut. Multi-family housing is typically more affordable for families with lower incomes.

“Without it [8-30g], towns really could just continue to ignore the need for affordable housing in their region,” Ghio said.

Representatives from other groups including Desegregate CT, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center and the Open Communities Alliance, among others, spoke against the proposed study.

Karen DuBois-Walton, president of Elm City Communities/Housing Authority of the City of New Haven, spoke about the need for more housing she sees in her work. She said the housing authority’s waiting list has more than 17,000 families, and some wait for years for assistance.

“I urge this committee to vote against this bill, which will serve only to distract from our state’s fundamental failure to provide enough affordable housing,” DuBois-Walton said in written testimony. “There are bills before this committee this session that would help solve problems — this one does no such thing.”

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