Gov. Ned Lamont speaks Thursday at a Bridgeport press conference announcing the housing priorities in his new budget proposal. / Photo by Ginny Monk, CTMirror.org

By Ginny Monk / CTMirror.org

Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed budget would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars toward affordable and workforce housing, and could mean significant investments in building Connecticut communities that are oriented around public transportation.

The governor’s budget, released last week, would set aside $600 million over the next two years in various housing ventures.

The goals is to a create about 6,400 new units of affordable housing in a state with a dire lack of housing that its lowest income residents can afford.

Westport sidetracked pricey “TOD” study

Westport commissioned an expensive study on ways to redevelop the area near the Saugatuck Railroad Station — including affordable housing — but it has sat on a shelf for five years. 

Plans for “Transit Oriented Development,” or TOD, that could provide more housing near the train station in the Saugatuck section of Westport have been discussed for years.

The town commissioned a report on the subject in 2016, and after spending a $440,000 state grant to hire consultants to study the issue, a detailed report was delivered in March 2018.

Since then, the study has sat on a shelf.

It’s unclear how recommendations from that study, if any, might guide the developer of the “Hamlet at Saugatuck” project, which recently won approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission for sweeping zone changes to pave the way for yet-to-be-filed site plans for a multi-faceted development abutting the rail depot.

In securing the P&Z’s approval, the developer, ROAN Ventures, promised to include affordable housing units as part of its plans.

Severe shortage of affordable housing

Connecticut lacks more than 85,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. Thousands of people are spending more than a third of their income on housing costs. 

The rates of evictions and homelessness are up in the state, partly a result of economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m so proud of this governor at this moment in time looking at housing, because we are in a crisis,” said state Sen. Marilyn Moore, a Democrat from Bridgeport and co-chairwoman of the Housing Committee. 

“It’s homelessness. It’s the students who are couch surfing who are homeless. It’s these dilapidated houses that need to be rebuilt. And this is a comprehensive plan that the governor has come up with.”

Lamont’s housing initiative detailed

  • $100 million for the state’s Time-to-Own program, which offers down payment assistance to low- and moderate-income households.
  • $200 million to expand workforce development housing for households with incomes from 60 to 120 percent of the area median income.
  • $100 million for the state’s Housing Trust Fund, particularly for multi-unit housing in downtowns that are close to public transportation hubs. The trust fund offers grants and loans to encourage development of affordable housing.
  • $200 million for flexible housing needs.

The funds would be spent over two years. They are nearly double the investment compared to the last two-year budget, according to a press release from the governor’s office.

“People deserve a roof over their head,” Lamont said Thursday. “That’s No. 1 in terms of getting your life back together. That’s what this means.”

Zoning rules restrict housing development

Development of multi-family housing, and housing that’s affordable to people with lower incomes, has lagged in Connecticut. Experts say this is largely because of local zoning practices that restrict the number of multi-family units that can be built in many towns.

Lamont said Thursday that financial incentives included in the budget could help encourage towns that have been resistant to changing their zoning ordinances to allow more affordable housing.

“Every developer I talk to says the long delays and the hearings — that’s slow, that’s what costs us a lot,” Lamont said. “I’m trying to get these towns … you tell us where you want to build that housing, we’re gonna speed it up, we’ll provide the resources, we’ll provide the upgrade for the rail service. Let’s get it done together.”

Housing is typically considered affordable if a resident is paying up to 30 percent of their income to housing costs. Multi-family housing tends to be more affordable to people with low incomes who may not have built up the wealth necessary to afford a down payment.

“Our state is a beautiful place to live,” said Lt. Gov. Susan Susan Bysiewicz. “But it is very difficult to find an affordable place to live in our state.”

Investment for transportation-oriented projects

The plan includes investments in transit-oriented communities, a planning concept that emphasizes increased density around public transportation hubs such as train or bus stations.

Desegregate CT, a Connecticut housing and land-use policy advocacy group, has pushed the idea and named it as their legislative priority for the 2023 session.

The group’s proposal, called Work, Live, Ride, would give towns that opt to increase residential density near transit stations access to state money for certain infrastructure improvements.

Municipalities that want to create transit-oriented community districts — walkable communities with housing and businesses — would work with the state’s Office of Responsible Growth to plan the districts.

The governor’s office has also proposed legislative remedies to the state’s housing crisis, including a bill that would extend additional protections to Connecticut renters and a bill that would encourage more housing units for low- and middle-income families.

The bill to encourage affordable housing, Senate Bill 985, would use new bond funding for the Municipal Redevelopment Authority to encourage transit-oriented development. It would also require towns to create data reports on housing production and demolition if they want to receive certain state money.

The renters’ rights bill, House Bill 6666, would limit security deposits to one month’s rent, increase fines for landlords who violate housing code and ban small landlord discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Renters’ rights is a hot-button issue in the legislative Housing Committee this session, as lawmakers consider bills related to a cap on rent increases and eviction prevention, among other measures.

Lamont commented Thursday on the news that Valentine’s Day marked the highest number of eviction filings in the state since 2017. Feb. 14 saw 204 filings. The next highest days were tied at 181 in January 2023 and February 2018, data show.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said.

With additional information by the Westport Journal.