Legislature to Hold Wednesday Hearing on Raft of Housing and Zoning Legislation

HARTFORD — A raft of zoning and housing bills introduced in the state legislature since January turn on key points concerning the balance of home rule and state control, as well as issues of housing affordability, racial integration and equity.

A number of these bills have received hearings variously in Transportation, Planning and Development, Housing and Budget and Finance committees, and while legislators interviewed by CT Examiner expect that some provisions will eventually pass into law, very few of these bills will receive a vote and fewer still in their current form.

“These are works in progress and there’s a lot of language in a lot of bills that still need work,” said Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, co-chair of the Planning and Development Committee, during a Facebook Live question and answer session on Monday night. 

Among the 26 bills on its Wednesday public hearing agenda, the legislature’s Planning and Development Committee will consider at least three zoning bills directed toward issues of integration and affordable housing.

“These are works in progress and there’s a lot of language in a lot of bills that still need work,” said Cristin McCarthy Vahey, D-Fairfield, co-chair of the Planning and Development Committee, during a Facebook Live question and answer session on Monday night. 

It’s an approach that Keith Ainsworth, an environmental and land use lawyer, said might cause legislators to oppose the bills en bloc, rather than picking and choosing the provisions they oppose and support.

“The way the legislative process works is if you’re opposing a set of bills that are promoting a concept, and one of them begins to move forward, you have to oppose all of them because the one that moves forward will begin to take on the concepts of the  other bills that didn’t move forward, because they can be amended at any time in the legislative process before they’re voted on.”

One of the bills, S.B. No. 1024, “An Act Concerning Zoning Authority, Certain Design Guidelines, Qualifications of Certain Land Use Officials and Certain Sewage Disposal Systems,” was drafted by Desegregate CT, a recently-formed coalition of groups sponsored by the Regional Plan Association, and led by Sara Bronin a UConn professor of law, architect and former planning and zoning commissioner for the city of Hartford.

“The way the legislative process works is if you’re opposing a set of bills that are promoting a concept, and one of them begins to move forward, you have to oppose all of them because the one that moves forward will begin to take on the concepts of the  other bills that didn’t move forward, because they can be amended at any time in the legislative process before they’re voted on.”

The bill would allow the construction of accessory apartments, as well as 4-unit housing within a half-mile of one transit station and one-quarter-mile of a main street in each town, “as of right” — a legal bar which allows for administrative reviews of statutory compliance, but would significantly limit the role of hearings and board discretion as part of the approval process.

McCarthy Vahey said the state would convene a working group to develop design guidelines for towns to adopt “in whole or in part” as part of their zoning and subdivision regulations. Municipalities would have the ability to create their regulations within the state guidelines.

“That’s where that public input and public hearing process would be. And then, if an applicant were to come, rather than going through the public hearing, they would have to meet all those standards that a municipality or city put in place and they would, at that end, not have to go through public hearing,” she said. “I just want to acknowledge that this is a big issue for people and I wanted to say that I recognize that and I hear that — and I’m really hoping to work together with my colleagues on that.”

The legislation is included in a list of bills that CT169strong, an advocacy group opposed to the bill and supportive of home rule, calls its “dirty dozen” — 12 proposed laws that the group says would increase state control at the expense of local decision making. 

“I just want to acknowledge that this is a big issue for people and I wanted to say that I recognize that and I hear that — and I’m really hoping to work together with my colleagues on that.”

A spokesman for the group, who lives in Darien and asked not to be named for this story, said “as of right” language was spread across a number of the bills, making the issue difficult to track. 

“It’s across five different committees, across 12 different bills, at least ones we’ve been able to find so far that have language specifically around as of right permitting for developers to develop around the half mile radius of a town downtown or train transit stations,” she said. “All the towns have a big problem with that because it’s such a one size fits all and it just doesn’t fit for all the towns.”

She said the bill required 10 percent affordability only on projects with 10 or more units, leaving open the possibility that developers could easily build fewer units in order to sidestep the affordability requirement. 

“We’re very, very concerned about having this state law override our local inclusionary zoning where we are requiring developers, when they build multi family housing, every five units they build they have to provide 5% affordable rent, meaning charging below market rent and make them deed restricted, affordable,” she said. 

A second zoning bill on the agenda for Wednesday’s hearing, H.B. 6611, “An Act Concerning a Needs Assessment and Other Policies Regarding Affordable Housing and Development,” which advocates call the “Fair Share Bill,” would require the state to formulate an assessment of statewide needs for affordable housing, divide up those needs by region and town, establish town-by-town plans for zoning and housing, with goals and schedules and enforcement, and support housing needs beyond those goals.

“We’re very, very concerned about having this state law override our local inclusionary zoning where we are requiring developers, when they build multi family housing, every five units they build they have to provide 5% affordable rent, meaning charging below market rent and make them deed restricted, affordable,” she said. 

The legislation is co-sponsored by State Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, State Rep. Jason Rojas,  D-East Hartford, and State Rep. Juan Candelaria, D-New Haven.

Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, said the bill has been under development for about five years and is based on the Mount Laurel Doctrine — a legal principle formed out of two long-standing state supreme court decisions in New Jersey which prohibited economic discrimination by the state and municipalities in the exercise of their land use powers.

“This is something that has been very, very carefully developed with a lot of real expertise from experts in their fields all across the country so it really works hard to address what’s missing from the market in a way that is workable for towns,” Boggs said. 

According to Boggs, Connecticut’s Zoning Enabling Act requires towns to play a role in meeting the regional need for affordable housing but many towns are not participating.  

“What 6611 does is it adds a little more meat on the bones to what the existing obligations are, to really make them workable and create a structure in which this can happen in a way that no handful of towns are taking on all of the responsibility, but rather it’s shared across the state,” said Boggs.

Rojas said he preferred to frame the legislation in terms of “greater housing options, greater diversity of housing, having relatively more affordable housing, having greater housing options, providing people more choice to make decisions for themselves.” 

Also on Wednesday’s agenda is H.B. 6107, proposed by Rojas, which would require local zoning regulations to “affirmatively further,” the federal Fair Housing Act — obligating local regulations not simply to prohibit segregation and discrimination, as already required, but also to promote policies that remedy such housing patterns.

The bill would also eliminate language allowing consideration of the “character” of a district — a word that critics say allows local boards the discretion to oppose the construction of new housing — while allowing consideration of effects on drinking water, and water quality for towns located along the Long Island Sound.

“There’s absolutely no guidance about what [the towns] need to accomplish, what the plans should contain and how they need to address the issue. It’s kind of a wide open field,” said Rojas, who participated in the Facebook Live session with McCarthy Vahey. 

According to Rojas, the housing bills had been “a lot of heated rhetoric and assumptions,” including claims that they amounted to “a state takeover.” Rojas said he preferred to frame the legislation in terms of “greater housing options, greater diversity of housing, having relatively more affordable housing, having greater housing options, providing people more choice to make decisions for themselves.” 

Rojas said that H.B. 6611 would set a standard for communities, but leave opportunities for towns to pursue their own solutions. 

“It would place an expectation of creation of affordable housing on a community, but it wouldn’t dictate the density or the location or exactly what zoning would say,” said Rojas.

State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, vice chair of Planning and Development, said that there is a general recognition that the problem of economic and racial segregation in the state needs to be addressed, but that limits on available jobs and transportation pose hurdles to local solutions.

“I would argue that people who are in that economic spectrum that need or meet the affordable housing criteria are not necessarily the people that are going to have their new cars that they’re willing to put on the road for 70 miles a day to drive with their jobs. If you don’t have jobs and transportation available, you’re not going to solve the problem.”

“Up to now the tools that were created to address it have proven to be inadequate, because the towns have gotten more economically and racially segregated,” said Needleman. “We are trying to figure out a way to improve the situation long term to give people the opportunity to live anywhere in this state that they want to raise their families, where there are jobs, where there’s transportation to get there.”

According to Needleman, who is first selectman of Essex, affordable housing developments in Essex, have so far not attracted people from Connecticut’s cities. At H.O.P.E. Partnership’s newly opened Lofts at Spencer’s Corner, for example, the 17 affordable units attracted one family came from Middletown and one from East Haddam, but the other units were rented by local families with children already enrolled in local schools. 

“I would argue that people who are in that economic spectrum that need or meet the affordable housing criteria are not necessarily the people that are going to have their new cars that they’re willing to put on the road for 70 miles a day to drive with their jobs. If you don’t have jobs and transportation available, you’re not going to solve the problem.” 

According to Needleman, that means that one-size-fits-all legislation will not work for every town, whether that means rural and agricultural areas to small towns to suburbs to cities. 

“Most reasonable people realize we have a problem here and we need to make progress, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “So, it’s really threading the needle.” 


To watch the Planning and Development Committee hearing at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, click here for YouTube or go to ct-n.com and look for the channel for the Planning and Development Committee hearing.

Click here for the agenda. 

A selection of bills to watch

Proposed House Joint Resolution No. 48 proposes a constitutional amendment to permit “municipalities to enact and enforce zoning regulations without regional or state interference.”

S.B. No. Bill 553 would established a municipal bill of rights affirming that “the enactment of local zoning regulations is a municipal right.”

SB No. 551, which was referred to the Transportation Committee, would require that 50 percent of land within ½ mile of transition stations and commercial corridors be zoned for multifamily housing and that accessory dwelling units be permitted as of right. 

SB No. 1068, similar to SB No. 172, would require the state to impose a tiered tax rate on each town depending on the town’s amount of town’s percentage of affordable housing .

SB No. 777 would define “character” for purposes of certain zoning statutes to mean “architectural consistency and population density.” 

S.B. No. 554 would require an statute amendment that would require a town’s zoning regulations to permit “a greater density of housing within one-half mile of a public transit station than is otherwise permitted by such municipality.” 

H.B No. 5682 would require that section 8-2 of the general statutes be amended to require” all municipal zoning regulations concerning residential zones to allow two-family dwellings.

H.B. No. 6239 would require the Department of Housing to gather data that can be used to determine whether housing funding and awards affect racial and economic segregation.

S.B. No. 194, which was referred to the Office of Legislative Research and Office of Fiscal Analysis, would establish a right to housing in Connecticut. 

S.B. No. 487 would allow housing authorities to expand their area of operation.

S.B. No. 394 would require the Department of Housing to conduct a study of methods to increase housing options for employees to reside in the municipalities where they work. 

S.B. No. 49 was referred to the Office of Legislative Research and Office of Fiscal Analysis on March 29. The act would establish workforce development programs in opportunity zones “and to create additional opportunities for workforce housing development in other parts of the state using tax credits, fee waivers and property tax abatement.”

S.B. No. 804, similar to S.B. 1024, would change zoning laws to incorporate accessory dwelling units and multifamily housing, as well as amend general statutes to address sewage flow capacity and allow housing authorities to expand their areas of operation.

Latest from Cate Hewitt