Sides are drawn this legislative session over a bill that would encourage more housing around Connecticut train and bus stations.
At issue is whether the state should control how many units are built, or whether that should be left to the municipalities.
House Bill 6890 would prioritize state grants for municipalities that comply. The grants would help municipalities expand and repair transportation, sewer and water systems; clean up brownfields; revitalize neighborhoods; and take on other work.
To get first dibs at the grants, municipalities would have to be deemed “transit-oriented communities.” The bill would revitalize the 17-year-old Office of Responsible Growth, part of the Office of Policy and Management, to oversee the program. The OPM secretary, who is appointed by the governor, would name a Responsible Growth Coordinator to make decisions about transit-oriented communities.
To win a top spot on the list for grants, municipalities with 60,000 people or more would have to allow a density of at least 30 housing units per acre within half a mile of a train station. The size of lots and number of parking spaces could not be “excessive,” as determined by the coordinator, and rents for a percentage of the units would have to be below market rate.
For smaller municipalities, the density would be 20 housing units per acre.
For neighborhoods within half a mile of a bus station, the density would be 20 housing units per acre for municipalities with more than 25,000 people, and 15 housing units per acre for smaller municipalities.
Under the bill, towns without a bus or train station could qualify as a “transit adjacent community” if they border a town that has one, and they designate a transit-oriented district.
The Responsible Growth Coordinator would have wide discretion in deciding whether developments meet the criteria, determining any exceptions municipalities might seek, distributing grant money, and more.
A ‘false choice’
The housing advocacy coalition Desegregate Connecticut has pegged the bill – and the concept of increasing housing density around public transportation hubs – as their legislative priority for this session.
Desegregate Connecticut Director Pete Harrison could not be reached Thursday, but in his testimony before the General Assembly’s Planning & Development Committee last month, he said the bill, which his group calls Work Live Ride, establishes a new policy framework for addressing Connecticut’s housing shortage and reducing car trips.
“Work Live Ride aims to reject, once and for all, this false choice of ‘local control’ versus ‘state mandates.’ We are not just residents of a specific town or city and we’re not just residents of Connecticut. We are both,” Harrison said.
HB 6890 “avoids a one-size-fits-all approach by creating multiple categories of transit-oriented community districts to reflect a community’s population, transit infrastructure, and geography,” he testified. “Within those categories, local governments have immense discretion to design the size, location and characteristics of their district.”
The Work Live Ride bill “strikes a balance between local control and state direction,” Harrison said.
It doesn’t, said Tara Restieri, a member of CT169Strong, a grassroots group that advocates for local oversight of housing development.
“I understand Work Live Ride – you want development in an area where people can walk to the train station or downtown, and not have to use their cars,” Restieri said. “But this bill goes way beyond that.”
The Responsible Growth Coordinator proposed in the bill would have “a lot of leeway” in making development decisions for towns, Restieri said. The person would be designated by the OPM secretary who, as an appointee of the governor, is charged with advising the governor on policy and financial issues, advocating for the governor’s policies and helping to implement them, according to the OPM website.
The coordinator would not be elected by the people of Connecticut and likely would know little about the housing demands of each of the state’s 169 towns, or their limitations in fulfilling them, said Restieri, a Greenwich resident.
“For one of the train stations in Greenwich, the nearest supermarket is 4.2 miles away. You need a car to get there. Metro-North is a commuter railroad, not a subway that comes every 15 minutes and brings you close to where you want to go,” Restieri said. “Building around a train station is not always the correct thing to do.”
Small towns have their own unique constraints, she said.
“We were talking to people on the Planning and Zoning Commission in Easton. They were saying that if they wanted a chance at these state grants, they would have to build all these housing units,” Restieri said. “They told us, ‘But people don’t want to live here. It’s rural. There are no jobs. We had only two building applications in the last year.’”
Better ways to do it?
A state coordinator would be more effective overseeing municipalities to ensure they create affordable housing, and leaving the details to the locals, Restieri said. The state could distribute more funding to support municipal housing efforts and more Section 8 vouchers to people seeking rentals, she said.
“There are things that work. I wish the state would sit with us and talk about the real effects of these bills,” she said. “Instead, they sit in Hartford and don’t want to budge from their opinions.”
There’s a law, for instance, “that says developers don’t have to include any affordable units if their building has less than 10 units. So a developer in Greenwich built these beautiful six-unit buildings near the train station that are $3 million to $4 million each. Some bills say there’s no requirement for on-site parking. That helps developers, not people,” Restieri said.
“Transit-oriented development and Work Live Ride only work for developers,” she said. “If it really were about affordable housing, the state would say developers have to make 50 percent of the units affordable or 80 percent or even 100 percent. But that’s not what these bills are about.”
Restieri said she likes some of the things in Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed housing budget, which would allocate $600 million over two years to subsidize 6,400 affordable units. It includes financial incentives to encourage towns that have resisted zoning changes that would allow more housing.
Lamont’s plan includes $100 million for down payment assistance for low-income households; and $100 million for the state’s Housing Trust Fund to offer grants and loans to encourage development.
Many towns are tackling the affordable housing shortage on their own, Restieri said. Westport has created “pods” – small communities of affordable units surrounded by green space, Restieri said.
Greenwich has started a marketing campaign for private donations to its Affordable Housing Trust Fund, said Restieri, who sits on an advisory council to the fund.
Harrison has criticized Greenwich’s fund for providing loans to developers who agree to build smaller projects or reduce the number of below market rate units.
In his testimony Harrison said Desegregate Connecticut believes “that by reforming our local and state zoning laws, we can create abundant, diverse homes and communities to promote economic prosperity, social inclusivity, and environmental sustainability for all of us.”
HB 6890 will help create “the positive, inclusive dynamic Connecticut has long needed. The time is right for investing in our shared prosperity, racial integration, and environmental resilience,” Harrison said.