Housing Bill Get Nods in Senate — a Small Step — as Lawmakers Debate Direction

HARTFORD — The State Senate approved a zoning bill on Thursday night that was hailed as “historic” by housing advocates, and a step toward state control of local decision-making by its opponents. The bill passed in the House on May 20 and still requires the signature of Gov. Ned Lamont. 

The legislation, approved in a 23-13 vote, includes provisions that allow accessory dwelling units as of right on lots with single family houses and reduce parking minimums, but also allows towns to opt out of some requirements by a ⅔ vote of their Board of Selectmen or legislative board. Among its provisions, the bill limits towns from charging additional fees for affordable housing developments and requires the return of extra funds to the developer. 

“What this simply does is it allows the municipality to treat all of the projects in the same way… This is a fairness issue, they’re all paying the same price. The municipality is trying to do its job fairly and treating everybody equally,” said State Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, co-chair of the Planning and Development Committee, who co-sponsored the legislation with State Sen. Norm Needleman, D-Essex, vice chair of the committee. 

State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, said that in the name of “fairness” the provision will cut off the ability of towns — New Canaan and Fairfield in particular — that have used leftover money to establish a trust fund for the purpose of “affordable, accessible and diverse housing.”

“We’re looking at a situation for communities that have taken on that initiative on their own, many years before and have demonstrated success in accommodating and accomplishing those types of noble intentions and goals despite tremendous land costs, economic and building costs… But this bill is another example, however well intentioned, of the idea of one size fits all.”

Needleman said that allowing towns to charge higher fees for affordable housing could disincentivize developers from pursuing affordable projects. He said the statutes allow for an affordable housing trust fund, but the funding had to come from sources other than the applicant’s money. 

Despite being called an affordable housing bill, the legislation does not require towns to build affordable housing, nor does it count accessory dwelling units toward the total percentage affordable housing, as defined by the 8-30g law, unless those units are deed-restricted. 

Regarding issues of state control and home rule, Needleman said there are already many state and federal requirements that cities and towns must follow — building codes, public health codes, fire codes. 

“It is not a shock that the state has their hand in what municipalities do … I want to be clear about the fact that this bill is not onerous. This bill is not taking away home rule. This bill is less onerous than many other things that we live with every single day as municipal officials.”

The legislation would also establishe a Commission on Connecticut’s Development and Future — a 36-member group appointed by political leaders that Hwang called “incredibly top heavy,” given the lack of appointees from towns. 

“Are we looking to get perspective, insight and ideas from all engaged shareholders? Or have we not learned our lesson that Hartford-centric ideas, while well-intentioned, do not always work when applied to various local communities … I feel as though we’re making the same mistakes, of forgetting to recognize the policies and the laws that we make in the state of Connecticut that will impact the significant shareholders who will be living with these laws but don’t really have a voice in this.”

State Sen. Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said that the problem of affordable housing was not rooted in zoning regulation, but in the long-term mismanagement of the state by the Democrats. 

“The Democrats’ solution is to give Hartford more government control over our towns and cities, as if Hartford has gotten it right. Housing is unaffordable when our state is unaffordable. Until committed Democrats create an economy that provides better opportunity and income to our families, housing will only grow more unaffordable for more people, no matter what the programs or what the government the Democrats create.”

The bill left out far-reaching measures included in S.B. 1024, for example requiring multifamily housing near transit stations and main streets, but State Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said he still saw the legislation as an important incremental step.

“While I am a bit frustrated with this bill, that it is not as strong as it could or should be, but this vote tonight is a very important step on our road to ensuring that Connecticut sheds itself from being the most segregated states in the nation… Let’s give people a chance to live in our communities — in all of our communities, not just some of our communities, but every town.”

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