By Ginny Monk, CTMirror.org, with additional Westport Journal reporting

State House of Representatives Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, left, and House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, photographed earlier this year, said Friday the “fair share” zoning initiative was dropped from an omnibus housing bill facing legislative action. / Photo by Stephen Busemeyer, CTMirror.org

After weeks of negotiations, leaders of the state House of Representatives said Friday their signature housing bill will not include controversial measures for zoning reform — proposals that officials from many suburbs, including Westport, fiercely opposed.

Early drafts of House Bill 6781 released Thursday afternoon had included requirements the state assess the need for affordable housing and divide that need between towns. Towns would then would have been required to plan and zone for a certain number of units, with focus on increasing the amount of housing near train and bus stations.

But Friday morning, House Democratic leadership announced the bill was stripped of the “fair share” provision, which would have required towns to zone for more affordable housing. 

Both the fair share proposal, based on an initiative by the Open Communities Alliance, and transit-oriented housing projects, advanced by Desegregate Connecticut, have been strongly criticized by state legislators and local officials from suburban communities.

At a recent affordable housing forum, state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, called the fair share proposal “far from workable” and “fairly vindictive” toward suburban communities.

Instead, the state housing bill focuses on tenant protections and rental housing quality, including  higher code-violation fines and changes to the amount of time certain eviction records are posted online, among other measures. 

When asked about what it does to increase the affordable housing stock, House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, was definitive.

“Nothing. That’s the problem,” Rojas said.

“Courting” solutions?

House Speaker Rep. Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, suggested that zoning reform may have to be accomplished through the courts, rather than the state legislature. 

A policy similar to the proposed “fair share” measure was implemented in New Jersey through the courts, and last year a group of advocates filed a suit against the town of Woodbridge for its zoning practices.

Questioned Friday, Gov. Ned Lamont said he wants to leave zoning decisions to towns and leave developers to push for affordable housing in towns resistant to the idea using court remedies under the 8-30g statute.

“Obviously the court, at the end of the day will adjudicate on the 8-30g,” Lamont said. “But look, I’m trying to avoid 8-30g. I’m trying to avoid lawsuits and trying to tell municipalities, ‘Step forward, show us your plan, rezone it in a way that we can get development going faster.’ ”

The 8-30g law, passed in 1989, has been controversial in towns like Westport. Essentially, it allows developers of multi-unit housing projects to sidestep significant parts of local zoning rules if the number of a town’s “affordable” housing units — as defined by state criteria — is below 10 percent of overall inventory.

Westport focusing on local initiatives

Westport, like many suburban communities, falls short of the 10 percent affordable threshold. 

Since adopting a state-mandated affordable housing plan last June, town officials have been working on aspects of that plan to increase the local supply of affordable units.

Westport officials’ recent discussion of affordable housing has focused on adopting a new regulation to allow “cottage clusters” of affordable units on town-owned land and establishing a trust fund to finance affordable housing initiatives.

Restrictive zoning vs. local control

The issue has been a political hot potato in Connecticut for years. It’s faced fierce opposition, particularly from residents and lawmakers in Fairfield County. Opponents argue the bills are onerous, weaken local control and impose one-size-fits-all solutions.

Connecticut lacks tens of thousands of units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. Housing is typically considered affordable if residents pay up to a third of their income to housing costs. Thousands of Connecticut residents spend much larger portions of their income on rent.

Advocates have said that restrictive local zoning ordinances pose serious barriers to building multi-family housing in the state. Multi-family units tend to be more affordable to people with low incomes.

Research has also tied exclusionary zoning to racial segregation, meaning that in Connecticut people of color can face hurdles to living in certain towns, with better schools and amenities like municipal beaches. Where a person lives is also linked to their health outcomes.

Fair share sponsors angered

Erin Boggs, executive director at Open Communities Alliance, issued a statement about the “fair share” measure Friday that outlined its efforts to work with lawmakers to make the bill more palatable.

“To those who will claim ‘victory’ about this development, you are responsible for perpetuating the housing crisis the state faces,” Boggs statement reads. “You are holding back our economy, and for continuing to make Connecticut an unaffordable place to live for young people starting their first jobs, for middle-class workers who don’t make a ton of money, and for seniors who desperately want to stay in the communities they’ve lived in their entire lives. You are, even today, too often acting in violation of state statutes and the state constitution, which require towns to advance economic opportunity and to tackle segregation.”

Republican House Leader Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said Friday that his party wasn’t included on negotiations about the housing bill and that it was too big.

“So I did hear the fair housing piece was stripped out. And I think what that says for this chamber is that we should not be crafting legislation in the dark,” Candelora said. “And I think that was a bill that was too big to be done in secret. It was very hard to get support around it.”

Transit-oriented housing plan may survive

While zoning measures were pulled from the House omnibus bill, Rojas said the Work, Live Ride initiative may still be on the table. It would use state funding to incentivize towns to increase residential density near public transportation hubs.

The policy would establish zoning reform in some towns in Connecticut, but has less reach than the “fair share” policy.

Friday’s abrupt announcement at the end of a legislative session that’s been marked by a focus on housing begs the question: What will it take to get zoning reform through in Connecticut?

Strong opposition in Fairfield County

Much of the opposition in the Democratic caucus stems from Fairfield County, Rojas said.

He referred to it as a “hoarding of social capital,” in an interview Friday. The House leaders also said Friday that they’d like to see more leadership on zoning from Lamont’s office.

Lamont has consistently said he supports local control and prefers incentive-based approaches to mandates when it comes to affordable housing. This session, he’s thrown support behind transit-oriented development such as Work, Live, Ride — provided it’s incentive-based.

Opponents to that measure have said that the method of awarding state infrastructure funding to municipalities that “opt in” is more of a mandate than a real choice.

Lamont has also spoken often about the economic boon that more housing would provide.

“Every single business leader I talked to says, ‘It’s great, you’ve got workforce training, and we’ve got work skills out there,’” Lamont said at a press conference last month. “‘We have jobs to fill. Where are they going to live?’ It’s an absolute necessity in terms of the workforce.”

Asked about the call for more leadership, Lamont reiterated previous statements. He also pointed to the $600 million in bonding over two years he’s called for to build more housing and encourage homeownership in Connecticut.

“Like I said, I think every town has got to come forward with their plan and tell us how they want to meet needs,” Lamont said. 

“Housing is about making sure your grandparents can downsize and find the place in town so they grow up next to their grandkids. It’s an opportunity for their kids to maybe move to a bigger house. That’s the flow right now. We have a real shortage of housing that’s costing us big time.”

Advocates have said that many towns in the state are resistant to building more affordable housing and often deny building permits from affordable housing developers. 

Unlike Westport, more than half didn’t meet the deadline last summer to submit their affordable housing plans to the state and close to 30 still haven’t done so.

As Democratic leadership works with the desires of their caucus, they face a challenge on zoning. Asked who will break through the political roadblock, Rojas’s disappointment was clear as he told reporters it might be up to an outcry from the general public or private businesses.

“Unfortunately, I don’t know — a worse crisis? I don’t know, it will take the people of the state of Connecticut demanding that we do something on it,” he said.

“And I think employers, too,” Ritter offered. 

“Yeah, at some point. And employers, you know, offered a little bit of help on housing, but I don’t think that they were ready to do something that’s more demanding,” Rojas said. “Incentives feel a lot nicer.”

CTMirror’s Mark Pazniokas contributed reporting.