June 4, 2023


Good Living

Officials: Top-down approach to affordable housing not working in CT

Some Fairfield County officials say residents in their communities do not oppose more affordable housing, but they don’t trust the state to develop a feasible plan.

Local politicians, planners, political hopefuls and elected officials gathered for a virtual meeting Tuesday night to discuss ways to increase the amount of available affordable housing, while expressing fears of proposals they said would overstep the state’s bounds in an effort to force a solution.

“Centralized authority has proven over and over and over again” that their answers don’t work, said Scott Hobbs, chairman of the New Canaan Housing Authority. “It’s not that we need to control things.”

But it’s what advocates for local control see, and it has become a campaign point in Tuesday’s elections. Republican candidates promise to keep local control of schools and zoning amid regional proposals from Democrats.

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, in a June column in the CT Mirror, proposed a “segregation tax” be levied against residents of municipalities where less than 10 percent of the housing is classified as “affordable.”

Desegregate CT, which tops its website with a banner that reads, “Connecticut’s land use system is broken,” calls for greater availability of housing for more people, and for statewide design guidelines and regional planning agencies, according to its platform.

A bill on the website of Sen. Saul Anwar, who represents East Hartford, Ellington, East Windsor and South Windsor, and is chairman of the housing committee, would revamp zoning throughout the state.

State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, said a Senate bill suggested allowing municipal housing authorities to expand their jurisdiction into neighboring towns. A House bill would eliminate a town’s character as a reason to reject a proposal. Another plan would give the state more control over areas for miles around transit hubs. Elimination of single-family zoning was also mentioned, she said.

“It’s actually the elimination of single-family zoning in large swaths of towns,” Lavielle said.

Carol Platt Liebau, president of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, said many of the proposals “aren’t really desegregation plans as they are affordable housing plans.”

“If you redrew Connecticut to make it similar to other states, it would look a lot less segregated,” Liebau said.

Segregation in Connecticut, she said, is a reflection of “urban divide.”

“Racial desegregation is happening,” Liebau said. “Is it happening fast enough? That’s something policy makers can have disagreements on.”

The state “seizing local control” of zoning could be “tailored to that end,” she said, “but the state’s record doesn’t inspire confidence.”

“It’s very difficult to oppose a proposal like this when doing so means you’re running the risk of being called a racist,” Liebau said.

Black families are not afforded the opportunity to have a home and accrue that equity, Liebau said, because they have less generational wealth, which can be addressed with “less expensive, more affordable houses where safe septic and wells can be maintained.”

Taxes are also a factor.

“The punitive state property taxes here in Connecticut are keeping people of color from building home equity,” Liebau said.

Wilton Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman Richard Tomasetti said he agreed with a number of things he read on the Desegregate CT site, saying ideas mirrored Wilton’s Plan of Conservation and Development.

“Then I got to the line when they said we should do it on a regional or state level, and they started to lose me,” Tomasetti said.

An architect, Tomasetti said a top-down approach will not work for planning, which must be tailored to meet each location.

Some of what the proposals seeking to change zoning suggest already exist, he said.

“Desegregate CT and Sen. Anwar’s bill are behind the times,” Tomasetti said, adding that Wilton had accessory apartments for 20 years, Ridgefield for as far back as anyone can recall, and Greenwich as of a recent decision.

“It’s an alphabet soup of planning ideas because they wanted to do something and wanted to act quickly and thought that the time was right,” he said.

He also asked how the 10 percent quota, set forth in Section 8-30g, which allows developers to override local zoning if a project fills an affordable housing need in the eyes of state courts, was established.

“I’d love to know the metric,” Tomasetti said. “Suppose 10 percent isn’t achievable.”

That may be the case in New Canaan, Hobbs said. The town would need more than 700 units to hit the state’s threshold. After a project that just started to expand Canaan Parish, it will be in the 200s in terms of units.

Hobbs said it was a misconception that developers turn great profits, pointing out the high costs of construction and desirable land.

Then, in a case such as a housing authority, regulatory costs escalate expenses.

“In Hartford, they don’t understand the problems we have,” said Hobbs, a fourth-generation New Canaan resident and a builder.

“Nobody is disputing the need for affordable housing,” Lavielle said. “It’s a question of where are the decisions made, where should it be located and how should it be constructed.”

“A big positive way forward is for local communities to come together and acknowledge problems today are a result of decisions made decades ago solving other problems,” Hobbs aid. “Towns that choose not to solve them will find themselves at a disadvantage. Towns that choose to solve them will find themselves at an advantage.”