'We need to work together': Forum addresses affordable housing challenges

A forum on land use hosted by state Sen. Tony Hwang was held on Tuesday to address a wide range of topics revolving around housing, local zoning and more. Taken Dec. 1, 2020.

A forum on land use hosted by state Sen. Tony Hwang was held on Tuesday to address a wide range of topics revolving around housing, local zoning and more. Taken Dec. 1, 2020.

DJ Simmons/Hearst Connecticut Media

As the state continues to grapple with the need for affordable housing, local officials are assessing how new legislation may impact towns.

A virtual forum on Tuesday highlighted some of the challenges towns faced, including developers leveraging the 8-30g statute to circumvent local zoning requirements, one-size fits all legislation potentially being handed down at the capitol, and the state disregarding work already being done locally.

“I truly want to emphasize that this is the beginning of the dialogue and that I genuinely believe that every community wants to be able to have affordable, diverse and accessible housing,” state Sen. Tony Hwang said. “But at the same time I do believe for us to have the best solutions we need to engage all shareholders, all viewpoints, and not simply one direction on down.”

He was joined by state Rep. Laura Devlin, state Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, state Rep. Brian Farnen, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg and other dignitaries.

The forum also discussed HB 5132, which looks to restructure the Zoning Enabling Act and has left critics of the bill concerned of its impact on local zoning officials’ powers.

Vahey, who chairs the legislature’s Planning and Developing Committee, said it’s important to note HB 5132 does not get rid of a town’s ability to regulate and zone for historic character. She said giving towns the tools to address housing was important.

“Providing carrots as opposed to sticks means that we have to invest,” she said. “We’ve got to provide some funding — more funding than we have — otherwise too much gets left to the market, and that’s where some of the struggles have come in for folks with 8-30g.”

She said she was interested in a discussion in the legislature this year that would allow for more frank and solution-oriented conversations regarding housing.

“It’s so central to everybody’s everyday life and we really want to offer opportunity and choices for people,” Vahey said.

Elizabeth Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said her organization is taking a thoughtful and measured approach to examining these issues. This included an affordable housing survey to get input from its members and holding working group meetings to discuss the topics.

“I think everyone agrees that in order to truly address these racial and economic disparities you need to take a more holistic approach,” Gara said. “You need to look at other things like education, workforce development, job creation home ownership opportunities and things of that nature that allows people to develop wealth over time.”

But she said there is a concern that recent proposals are one-size fits all approaches.

“We’re finding that a lot of our towns are concerned about what does this mean in terms of their efforts to protect watershed areas, water resources, to protect against flooding and developing stronger coastal resiliency efforts,” Gara said. “That’s something that can’t be taken lightly.”

Panelists on the forum also discussed the shortcomings of the 8-30g statute, which allows developers to circumvent local zoning regulations if a municipality does not have enough affordable housing in the eyes of the state.

Francis Pickering, executive director of WestCOG, said the 8-30g statute had done little to address the racial wealth gap.

“In fact, 8-30g compounds the problem because if you buy an 8-30 unit the appreciation in your home value is capped at the gross and median wages,” he said . “As we know, over the last 30 years median wages has stagnated while open market home values has grown faster than that.”

Pickering said affordable housing was needed throughout the state, but it should not be distributed homogeneously. He added placing families by jobs, transits and connecting them to public water and sewage infrastructure could be crucial to helping them succeed.

“When you add all this up you’re talking about saving hundreds of thousands of dollars for those households over a 20- or 30-year period,” he said.

Matthew Mandell, a Westport resident, said the work of towns to proactively address affordable housing is also not recognized. He said 10 years ago Westport was instrumental in creating inclusionary zoning, which requires 20 percent affordable housing in multi-family housing.

The town also received a four-year moratorium from the state on 8-30g applications in 2019, he said. But one-size fits all legislation wouldn’t work, he said

“We need to work together to find a better solution,” Mandell said.