Multiple statewide land use reform proposals are up for debate in the Nutmeg State. Which, if any, will become law?
Housing advocates in Connecticut are once again making a forceful push for statewide land use reform, and momentum appears to be on their side in 2023.
Pro-housing groups have introduced two proposals this legislative session to expand access to housing. One–a transit-oriented development bill branded as “Work Live Ride” and introduced by DesegregateCT–calls for loosening zoning restrictions to allow more homes near transit stations. Another–a “Fair Share” bill proposed by Open Communities Alliance–would require towns to create and implement affordable housing plans, and introduce penalties for those who fail to do so. In addition, and perhaps most consequentially, Governor Ned Lamont’s executive budget calls for an unprecedented $600 million investment in housing over the next two years.
Both legislative proposals also appeared during last year’s session and have been reworked since. Generally, the former prioritizes “carrots,” incentives for communities to permit more homes, while the latter embraces “sticks,” penalties for communities who unjustifiably obstruct housing production.
Under “Work Live Ride,” a municipality’s planning and zoning body would choose to opt in and create a Transit-Oriented Community District around its bus or train station. Restrictions on development would be relaxed within the district, and the community would become eligible for state assistance and funding from the Office of Responsible Growth for planning and design, infrastructure upgrades, and home construction.
The “Fair Share” bill would require a statewide affordable housing needs assessment, then allocate the responsibility for that affordable housing to each town, based on a fair assessment of their capacity to build. It would require the creation of “fair share” plans for each municipality, and establish penalties for municipalities that fail to submit plans.
The state legislature will soon schedule hearings on both proposals. As for Governor Lamont’s budget, it calls for $100 million for the state’s Time-to-Own program, $100 million for the state’s Housing Trust Fund, $200 million for flexible housing needs, and $200 million to expand workforce development housing.
For many Nutmeggers, relief can’t come soon enough. Connecticut has the lowest vacancy rate of any state in the U.S. At the end of January, there were just 3,600 homes for sale in the state, whereas there were 17,000 at the same time in 2017. On Valentine’s Day, the state saw 204 eviction filings, the highest number since 2017. One in three households is cost burdened, spending more than 30 percent of its income on mortgages and/or other housing-related costs.
These statistics also do not capture the stories of those who might be underhoused, or those who would like to move to Connecticut but cannot. “Decades of anti-homes local zoning policies have made Connecticut into an exit-door-only state,” writes Pete Harrison, Director of DesegregateCT, in CT Mirror. “As someone who is also currently renting a home, and feels lucky to have found it, I know firsthand how hard it actually is to move here and to think about making it a forever home.”
Connecticut is also one of the nation’s most racially and economically segregated states. In 2019, incisive reporting from ProPublica and CT Mirror called “Invisible Walls” drew fresh attention to this issue. It pulled back the curtain for a national audience on what many local residents already knew or experienced, whether or not they chose to acknowledge it. It was a black eye for a state generally perceived to be well-heeled and liberal (if at times that liberalism can be more polite than progressive).
Not long afterwards in 2020, the nationwide uprising against racial inequality gave lawmakers the final push they needed to address segregation by passing a series of reforms aimed at expanding access to housing in all communities, especially the suburban and rural communities where multifamily housing is so scarce. These reforms legalized accessory dwelling units as-of-right, addressed outdated parking mandates, removed the term “community character” as a consideration in development applications, and required training for local planning and zoning commissioners.
These reforms, known as House Bill 6107, represented the first major statewide land use change in Connecticut in about 30 years. Although historic for “the land of steady habits,” the measures were relatively modest and by their nature could not pay dividends immediately. As a result, conditions for renters, homeowners, and unhoused individuals have not changed significantly yet, and housing is back atop the docket in Hartford.
If material conditions in the state’s housing market have only begun to improve slightly, the mood around this perpetually fraught issue appears to have shifted markedly.
According to a housing survey sponsored by Growing Together CT in late January, 61 percent of registered Connecticut voters agreed that "when towns won’t act to make housing more affordable, the state government should step in so that Connecticut doesn’t get too expensive for everyone.” Additionally, 73 percent agreed that "there should be housing options in every town for residents of all incomes." Overall, 86 percent say it is "very important" or "somewhat important" that Connecticut makes housing more affordable.
The usual suspects on planning or preservation committees in the toniest of towns will still look sideways at any statewide reform. The local papers may still choose to call any housing development of any size whatsoever “controversial.” But the poll numbers suggest public opinion is now on the side of change, and not the status quo.
While support among residents seems to suggest something will happen this legislative session, the deciding factor may be just one resident: Governor Lamont.
Lamont is a Democratic Governor working with a Democratic statehouse, but he has always approached zoning and land use reforms with caution. Support for such reforms does not fall neatly along party lines in Connecticut. If anything, in this blue state with many red towns the split is geographic. Urban communities more often see the value of centralized planning while suburban and rural communities want land use decision making to remain exclusively local. The latter camp generally holds sway in the statehouse.
Lamont also hails from Greenwich, the jewel on Connecticut’s “gold coast” in Fairfield County. One of the richest towns in the U.S., it remains unsurprisingly one of the most vociferous voices for local control. In communities like Greenwich, high housing prices generally help, not hurt, existing residents, and can be a source of civic pride.
Housing practitioners and political insiders in Connecticut generally agree the Governor’s support could tip the scales in favor of land use reform. However, Lamont only publicly supported the 2021 reforms insofar as he did not veto them. He engaged with housing reforms in 2022 not at all. Now, as public opinion appears to be shifting amid one of the tightest housing markets ever, the newly-re-elected Lamont may finally be ready to lean in on land use. While some authoritative observers are panning Lamont's housing plan, it is encouraging that he even has one this year.
For this reason, if for no other, housing reforms appear to be shaping up in Connecticut in 2023, although their final form remains unclear.
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