It was a meeting about one of the things most important to people – their homes – so it went on for three and half hours.
The subject was a 2021 state law that bypasses local zoning regulations and legalizes accessory apartments on all single-family lots, effectively turning them into two-family lots.
Under the law, municipalities may opt out of the mandate by Jan. 1. Greenwich, Westport, Fairfield and surrounding towns have already done so, but the discussion in Stamford got started Thursday night during a meeting of the Board of Representatives’ Land Use Committee.
Opting out has multiple steps, takes months, and starts with the Zoning Board, representatives learned. If three of the five Zoning Board members, who are appointed by the mayor, not elected by the people, vote to opt in, the owner of every single-family home in Stamford may add an apartment in the basement, attic, garage or elsewhere.
The 40 elected members of the Board of Representatives will have nothing to say about it.
Representatives have a say only if the Zoning Board votes to opt out. For Stamford to be free of the mandate, representatives would have to approve that vote with their own ⅔ vote.
State lawmakers enacted the law as part of an effort to increase the number of affordable housing units in Connecticut, which has a significant shortage.
Under the law, an accessory apartment may be up to 1,000 square feet, or 30 percent of the size of the principal home, whichever is less. A town cannot require more than one parking space.
Some city representatives support the mandate.
Accessory apartments “are the low-hanging fruit of affordable housing,” said city Rep. Ashley Ley, a North Stamford Democrat. “It’s a way for seniors to age in place … New homeowners can purchase a home and have an income from it.”
City Rep. Don Mays, also a North Stamford Democrat, said safety is a major concern. He cited the death in May of a 46-year-old Stamford man who succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning after a heating unit was vented into his illegal basement apartment.
“Accessory dwelling units already exist in our city. They’re just illegal apartments right now,” Mays said. The state law legalizing them will “make sure that there is code compliance any time [a unit] is built onto a residence. It’s important to keep in mind that we are going to be keeping our residents safer.”
That may not be the case, said Francis Pickering, executive director of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, an 18-town coalition that has been advising towns on state affordable housing mandates.
“The law does not automatically legitimize existing accessory dwelling units,” Pickering said. “They would continue to be illegal apartments.”
Stamford residents have for years reported multiple tenants coming and going from single-family homes, unsafe living conditions, residential streets narrowed to one lane by cars parked on both sides, lawns paved to create parking space, and other problems related to illegal apartments.
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said the city has an enforcement problem.
“We need more enforcement staff,” Blessing said. “Communities with fewer people and fewer illegal apartments have more staff. This legislation doesn’t make anything legal. What makes something legal is you go to the Building Department and get a permit. If an apartment doesn’t meet the requirements, it has to be modified until it does.”
City Rep. Sean Boeger, a Democrat from the Belltown area, agreed.
“I don’t think accepting the state regulations on this will make people start complying with building and fire codes,” Boeger said. “People have illegal apartments in the first place because they want to avoid fees and government bureaucracy. This won’t change that.”
“Before we allow more accessory dwelling units,” said city Rep. Jeff Stella, a Democrat from the West Side, “we have to clean up what’s already here.”
Stamford Mayor Caroline Simmons, who voted for legalizing accessory apartments in all single-family homes when she was a state representative, was invited to the meeting but did not attend.
Instead, Simmons sent a letter saying Stamford faces a “rising cost of living and housing shortage” and the law is a “culmination of compromise on multiple proposals seeking to address inequities that we know have been perpetuated for decades in the housing market.” The law offers the city the opportunity “to create increased access to housing without a substantial overhaul of existing zoning regulations,” Simmons wrote.
She did not address Stamford’s problems with illegal apartments and neighborhood congestion.
Representatives repeatedly objected to the state’s bypassing of city zoning regulations.
City Rep. Nina Sherwood, an East Side Democrat, said if Stamford officials do not “preserve our sovereignty” it will be “a colossal failure by this administration and the Zoning Board and the Board of Representatives … we have to keep the power within our hands to do what is best for the people of this city.”
Ceding control to the state “is a major issue,” Sherwood said. City Rep. Carmine Tomas, a Democrat from the Belltown area, agreed.
“Yielding local control to the state is not a good mode of operating,” Tomas said. “We can do the same thing in-house … and still maintain local control.”
Pickering said WestCOG recommends that towns create their own regulations for accessory apartments to suit their unique needs. It’s likely that nearly all the towns in western Connecticut will opt out, he said.
“Towns can support the affordable housing goals of the state in their own way,” Pickering said. “Our advice is to opt out, but don’t do it without an action plan. The state requires justification for your decision, so have a replacement policy that you opt into at the same time.”
Some towns have opted out because they want accessory units to be affordable, and the state prohibits that requirement, Pickering said.
Sherwood said rents for accessory units should be affordable.
“We don’t want a situation where people are putting luxury apartments in their houses and charging $4,000 a month,” she said.
Blessing said accessory apartments are smaller, and therefore cheaper, and add to the housing supply, but they “are not the solution to the affordable housing crisis. They just don’t do a whole lot.”
Ley, who supports the mandate, said the state wants less restrictive local zoning regulations.
“Historically zoning has been used to discriminate against people of color and people from low-income communities,” Ley said.
But Pickering said there is no evidence that accessory apartments contribute to neighborhood diversity.
“We have communities in Connecticut that have had [accessory apartments] for decades and are still highly segregated,” Blessing said.
The Land Use Committee chairman, city Rep. Bradley Bewkes, a Republican from Shippan, asked the city attorney for an analysis of the state’s mandate “to allow the public to understand the full scope” and help the board figure out “the appropriate way to go forward.”
Bewkes said he questions whether the mandate will make housing even less affordable, because allowing every single-family home to be converted to a two-family will drive up the price.
State Rep. Kim Fiorello, a Greenwich Republican who represents part of North Stamford, opposes state zoning mandates. Fiorello told city representatives, “You can take accessory dwelling units as Hartford crafted them, or you can shape them yourselves.”