State Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, is a sponsor of H.B. 6611, the “Fair Share” affordable housing bill, which was killed in the Judiciary Committee on May 3. The bill would have assessed affordable housing needs statewide and allocated a “fair share” goal by region based on a formula that included a town’s wealth, median income, and percentage of poverty and multifamily housing stock.
On Friday, Rojas spoke with CT Examiner about housing and zoning issues in Connecticut. He is the vice chair of the Legislative Committee and began serving as House Majority Leader in 2021.
What should the state’s role be in providing affordability for Connecticut residents?
The state’s role is really in providing support for communities who want to move in that direction — that can be technical support and financial support to communities that want to develop more affordable housing. The state’s role is also working with the private sector to help build affordable housing. Obviously market conditions don’t necessarily allow for affordable housing so that’s why there needs to be a government intervention or government involvement of some kind, so that’s in the form of subsidies, tax credits or direct funding of affordable housing.
The big question debate we’re having this year is around zoning and zoning authority, and certainly we want to ensure that our towns and cities are making those decisions to the furthest extent possible. But the state also maintains a role in determining how towns should do that as well. Obviously it should be done in collaboration, but I don’t want anyone using home rule as an excuse for the state not to be involved in some of these decisions, because we do have a role in it. I think it becomes an excuse to not do things. When you talk about fair housing laws, the towns don’t necessarily have the [jurisdiction] to just say no. They shouldn’t be doing that and legally I don’t think they can do that.
How can we better integrate Connecticut?
I think the only way to do that is how we address housing policy and whether we want to allow town borders to continue to limit who can live in what community and the kind of housing that we develop. This issue around affordability is not just about affordable housing for low income people, but affordability for people from all walks of life. It’s a critical public policy challenge that we have and also essential to addressing the cost of living in Connecticut. I think when people think about cost of living, they think about it only in terms of taxes, but it’s also about the cost of housing. The decisions in the debate that we’re having have direct implications for that major component of the cost of living in Connecticut.
Where should Connecticut prioritize the construction of affordable housing?
Everywhere. The current status quo is that the vast majority of affordable housing is already located in our urban centers, so we should prioritize expanding where affordable housing is located, so that we can expand access to opportunity.
There are a lot of very wealthy communities or higher-opportunity communities where the school system is more better funded, where there is less crime, where there is access to jobs of various kinds. Our urban centers have been gutted of their retail sectors as we’ve moved to malls, and more lower-income people fill those jobs. Over time, those kinds of jobs have moved to the suburbs. If we want to increase opportunity for people — it’s much easier for a person to live near that job, than to jump on a Connecticut public transit bus and take an hour to otherwise go 15 miles to their service job — as opposed to just providing an opportunity for an individual to live in that same community.
Are towns obligated to provide housing for people of all income levels? Why or why not?
Yes, they are. Our state Plan of Conservation and Development actually speaks to that. The housing laws largely speak to that and require towns and states to move in the direction of ensuring that there’s a variety and diversity of housing available for people from all walks of life and that’s not just income, but it can be based on disability or on age. We all have an obligation to affirmatively promote fair housing. We all do have an obligation to do that. That’s a moral one as well as a legal one.
Should Connecticut expand the use of as-of-right decision-making at the local level
It’s largely as of right for everything except multifamily housing, and that is embedded in the difficult history that our country has had around housing and around racial segregation. People just need to be honest about that.
We can talk about everything else — environment and density and this and that. The core of this, if you look at history, has been how do we keep different people from different races separated from each other. It’s embedded in racism and it’s embedded in classism as well. There are people who have to deflect from that because they’re not comfortable with that conversation and that’s fine, but at the core of this, that is what this is about and it always has been.
I just think it’s so critical to the future of our state that [either] we can continue to engage in the politics of housing — as we have throughout the history of our country, which has resulted in really bad outcomes for everybody — or we can actually be honest about it and try to be depoliticize it and actually get to the table and work on something collaboratively. That’s not what I’m seeing right now. What I continue to see is an overplayed politicization of this issue for political reasons, less than policy, despite the rhetoric that people have about it.