Times Take On Affordable Housing Lacks Evidence, Balance

Alexis Harrison


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

It’s important to address some of the claims and assumptions made in Ms. Lisa Prevost’s recent piece in the NY Times, Town After Town, Residents Are Fighting Affordable Housing in Connecticut.

The piece spurred a lot of discussion in many towns in the Nutmeg State and as an elected zoning commissioner in the Town of Fairfield and long-time neighborhood and environmental advocate, I’d like to set the record straight on 8-30g, Connecticut’s affordable housing law which allows developers to override local zoning regulations.

I believe this piece contains too many unsubstantiated conclusions and unfounded assumptions, so I will go under the assumption that it is a pro-development op-ed. Unfortunately, because the piece includes far more quotes from housing developers, advocates and lobbyists than from those local residents and officials who will be directly impacted by development, the real reasons behind local residents’ opposition are not presented fairly.

The article sets the tone by claiming “the restrictive zoning disparately harms Black and Latino households, and deepens economic and racial segregation in the area,” recently voiced by Erin Boggs, director of Open Communities Alliance. Statements by Ms. Boggs, a paid housing advocate, should not be promoted without any reference to what zoning laws actually do and don’t do.  It should be clearly stated that state zoning laws and municipal zoning regulations are absolutely color blind. These laws and regulations govern only the use of land, and not the person or entity that uses, owns, or applies to make changes to the land.  Further, zoning laws do not govern the purchase or sale of land: thus, they do not restrict anyone of any background from purchasing land or a home, anywhere in the state or its 169 municipalities.  

When applicants seek zoning approval to make changes to land, zoning commissioners look at the merits of the proposed development based on the characteristics of the facts and the governing law, and do not consider the identity of the applicant.  And zoning benefits communities by ensuring consistency of land uses and types of development in different zoning districts, preserving property values, and preserving historic and environmental resources. All these are uniquely local benefits best suited to be fostered by the decisions of local officials.

What’s left out of most of these opinion pieces is that the real problem people have with 8-30g is massive, out of scale buildings being approved almost as-of-right, destroying the consistent scale of development that all other residents are bound by, and which they relied on when buying their own houses.  Rather than a more nuanced approach which would preserve the benefits of zoning while encouraging infilling or smaller lots, this law virtually eliminates zoning regulations altogether. 

This much-maligned law allows any size apartment building to be built anywhere, without regard to zoning regulations on height, setback, density, or parking, so long as 30% of the units are affordable for 40 years.  In recent years there has been a huge increase in 8-30g projects, largely due to the high rental rates, because the increased profitability from the market rate units more than make up for the affordable units.  Maximizing density per square foot of land also enables developers to maximize profits, and this leads to large, out-of-scale developments, which is the reason for opposition by local residents.  

It is doubtful that even housing development advocates, many of whom reside in single family homes, would want a 5 to 6-story apartment building or buildings, 50-70 feet tall, dwarfing every other house on the street, containing 20-100 apartments, with inadequate parking, to be built within 1 foot of their property line, with dumpsters, air conditioner units and large generators also placed within feet of their property, and perhaps a party deck on the roof. But that is what 8-30g enables, as it removes most decision-making authority from zoning commissions and encourages developers to maximize profit by building extreme density per square foot of land, all in exchange for only 3 in 10 units being affordable.

Worse, commissions often feel bound to approve projects that may cause unsafe traffic patterns, have inadequate fire access, cause environmental problems, or impair historic resources, simply because not enough expert opinion was put into the public hearing record proving those problems would result.  This is because, unlike every other type of land use agency decision, with 8-30g, the burden of proof is on the commission, rather than the applicant.  That means that on appeal, commissions usually lose; statistics show that zoning decisions denying or scaling back proposals have consistently been reversed by Courts in all but a handful of cases.

From the tone of most opinion pieces, the problem and solution are presented as foregone conclusions, as if all the problems associated with income and racial disparity are premised on where people live, which itself is solely governed by local zoning control, rather than a multitude of other factors.

It’s a very large jump to conclude that zoning is the primary fault, and that therefore the evisceration of local zoning must be the primary solution. Ignored are a myriad of complex socio-economic factors influencing not just where people live, but the quality of life where they live, and the supply of housing in general. In no particular order, this may include real estate supply and demand cycles, demographic trends and population growth, historic population migration patterns, construction labor costs, supply chain delays and material costs, pandemic and millennial buying surges, mortgage and construction loan interest rates, bank mortgage lending practices, real estate broker and appraiser practices, employment opportunities, desirability of certain locales, property taxes, safety and crime, down payment assistance programs, the complex administration of affordable housing, the difficulty of getting section 8 housing vouchers, and the general decline of our largest cities.

A deep dive into problems and solutions is needed but not newsworthy.  Instead, we are left with sound bites, gloss overs and condemnation of 8-30g opponents, illustrated by this quote from developer Arnold Karp: “There is a vitriolic reaction when New Canaanites hear the term ‘affordable housing.”  Putting aside the fact that this developer has an application currently pending and thus is not a non-biased commentator, that charge is not born out.  It’s worth noting that New Canaan started a housing fund decades ago and a percentage of the cost of every building project in New Canaan supports this fund that is used to create new affordable housing. The state has provided little funding to build in the communities, like New Canaan, that are attempting to build affordable housing units through the New Canaan Housing Authority.

Also in New Canaan, there are a significant number of reservoirs, watershed areas and wetlands in their four-acre zoning. In fact, every town in Connecticut has its own unique natural resources and challenges to development that local planning and zoning members are best tasked with addressing. 

Every town, city and hamlet in Connecticut has its own unique history, infrastructure constraints, traffic issues and built and natural environment. It has been said that 8-30g is a sledgehammer when a scalpel is needed. Rather than demonize residents that have valid concerns over the unbridled density that 8-30g incentivizes, I urge all writers to seek out other viewpoints.  I would like to invite Ms. Prevost (and any other editor & reporter) to speak to local zoning officials and neighborhood advocates for a more complete picture and see how local inclusionary zoning has made towns open and inclusive.

There are other ways to add to the quantity and diversity of housing stock without gutting local zoning control.  I am confident that most residents of our 169 municipalities are aware of housing shortages, and will continue to find ways to expand and diversify housing stock in their communities. We need legislation that addresses the legitimate concerns of all stakeholders, and incentivizes responsible development in the best interests of local communities.

Alexis P. Harrison
Fairfield, CT

Harrison is a member of the Fairfield Town Plan & Zoning Commission but writes as a private citizen.