Hidden Brook
The Hidden Brook housing complex, with 39 units on Post Road East, is one of four developed by the Westport Housing Authority to provide “affordable” units in town. / Photo, Westport Housing Authority
State Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, proclaimed himself radicalized on affordable housing issues in reaction to a regional “fair share” legislative proposal. / File photo

By Ginny Monk / CTMirror.org

Two sweeping bills that aim to address issues ranging from evictions and workforce housing to homelessness and fair housing had a state legislative hearing Tuesday, the first step in advancing General Assembly Democrats’ priorities related to housing this session.

The hearing is the first step in possible passage of the wide-ranging bills introduced during a session marked by its focus on housing issues. 

“Fair share” plan radicalizes Steinberg

One bill proposed by a housing advocacy group prompted state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-Westport, to declare it is so “vindictive” and “punitive” that it “turned me from a moderate into a radical.”

Steinberg was reacting to a “fair share” housing proposal, which bases a town’s housing obligations on a regional assessment of needs. Towns within a designated region would have to plan and zone for a certain number of units based on the area’s needs.

A town’s share would be based on several factors, including its grand list, median income, population below the poverty line and the percentage of its population living in multi-family housing.

It also sets penalties for towns that don’t submit plans. 

Tuesday’s hearing also included discussion about a measure from the Republican caucus that would introduce major changes to 8-30g, one of the state’s affordable housing laws.

“We all have districts that have significant housing issues in them,” House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said in an interview.

“We know as a broader kind of economic-health-of-the-state issue that we haven’t been developing enough housing to meet the demands of the diverse population,” he said. “We need housing of all kinds, and I think there’s somewhat of a national crisis in that we have a significant shortage of housing.”

The bills — House Bill 6781 and Senate Bill 4 — have the support of Democratic leadership, lawmakers said in interviews. Rojas drafted the House bill, while Senate leadership worked with committee co-chair state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, to draft the Senate bill.

How should state’s housing crisis be addressed?

Connecticut lacks more than 86,000 housing units that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. About 34 percent of the state’s residents are paying more than a third of their income to housing costs

  • In Westport, according to 2021 data, 28.9 percent of the local households were considered “cost burdened,” down from 37.8 percent a decade earlier.

The state also has the lowest vacancy rate for apartments in the country, meaning ew apartments available.

“Connecticut has so much to offer when it comes to quality of life issues, like good schools, safe communities and economic opportunity,” said committee co-chair state Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester. But some policies, including restrictions on multi-family housing development and affordable single-family homes, have made it difficult to build enough housing, he said. 

“This bill is a broad attempt at tackling these issues in a way that makes a real difference,” he said.

Much of the opposition to the bills Tuesday centered around points such as protections against evictions or changes to the landlord-tenant relationship.

It’s not clear at this point in the legislative session, which is set to end in early June, how the two omnibus bills will work together. 

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said that consensus will be reached to determine content and whether issues will be in one or two bills.

It’s easier and more efficient to get one or two bills with a range of issues through the legislative process than to split the issues into several bills, lawmakers said in interviews.

“I don’t start anything that I think I can’t finish,” Moore said of the Senate bill. “That’s the honest to God truth.”

House bill

H.B. 6781 includes a wide range of measures, including:

• Reforms to ensure housing is safe and sanitary, including up to $2,000 per violation in penalties for violations of municipal codes and a requirement that landlords offer tenants the opportunity to walk through a unit and note any damages before leases begin.

Housing conditions have been a growing conversation in Connecticut, particularly among tenant unions, where many members report poor living conditions that aren’t fixed.

• Changes to tenant screening, including a requirement that screening fees for tenants cannot exceed the actual cost the landlords paid for the report and a requirement that landlords can’t consider eviction records that are more than five years old.

Eviction records have been shown to make it very difficult for tenants to find a new place to rent, particularly in Connecticut’s tight rental market.

• Requirements that municipalities develop fair housing plans by Jan. 1, 2024.

The bill language specifies that towns can work with the State Responsible Growth Coordinator and develop the plans once every five years. The plans should spell out how towns will “affirmatively further fair housing,” according to the bill.

The plans would work in conjunction with the Biden administration’s recent announcement that it would reinstate a federal rule around fair housing, lawmakers said. The rule requires governments to promote housing choice, eliminate disparities and foster inclusive communities. It’s a reinstatement of a similar rule implemented during former President Barack Obama’s administration and removed during former President Donald Trump’s term.

• Changes to the real estate conveyance tax for certain investors.

The intention is to increase the amount of taxes paid by large investors who buy up lots of single-family housing and to invest those profits in affordable housing, Rojas said.

“The real estate conveyance tax is there to make it a bit harder for hedge funds, often out of state, to buy up large swaths of single-family homes and rental properties by allowing only LLCs, sole proprietorships and LLPs to be at the lower conveyance tax rate,” Luxenberg said.

• Bond funding to increase affordable housing and address other housing-related issues.

The bill would allow some proceeds of bond sales to go to renovation of hotels, malls and office buildings into multifamily dwellings. It also includes bond funding for the 211 system, diversionary and flexible housing programs, the development of model municipal housing codes, and grants for regional housing inspection programs, a landlord relief pilot program and the Coordinated Access Networks (the state’s system of homelessness service providers).

Senate bill

S.B. 4 includes a wide range of measures, including:

• A ban on most winter-time evictions and limits on late-charges for rent.

The ban would last from Dec. 1 to March 31, a measure Moore said is to keep people from losing their housing during the coldest months. The fee limit for late rent would be $5 per day, up to $25, or 5 percent of the total rent payment.

Landlords spoke Tuesday against this portion of the bill, saying that it represents government interference in private contracts and that they needed measures to be able to get people who aren’t paying rent out of their property. Tenant groups spoke in favor of this portion of the bill.

• Support for workforce housing.

Gov. Ned Lamont has said that he supports more workforce housing, and his proposed budget includes financial support measures. This bill would add to that with tax credits for a workforce housing opportunity development program and would allow municipalities to exempt workforce housing from property taxes.

• Grants to encourage environmentally friendly housing upgrades, with a focus on environmental justice.

The grants would focus on multi-family residences built before 1980 and located in “environmental justice communities.” 

The bill has the support of Leticia Colon de Majias, president and founder of Green Eco Warriors and interim executive director at Efficiency for All, an outreach and advocacy group focused on the environment and climate change. She said it will leave residents of the community more resilient to extreme weather events.

“The benefits of this bill are vast and far-reaching,” Colon de Majias said in an emailed statement. “By reducing energy costs through energy efficiency and improved housing, tenants in low-income and Environmental Justice communities will be able to save money on monthly utility bills and maintenance costs, which have been skyrocketing and disproportionately harming these same neighborhoods.”

• A pilot program to provide temporary housing for people experiencing homelessness and veterans who need respite care.

The state Department of Housing would run the program, the bill says.

“This homelessness and lack of housing is impacting everybody, and these are some of the solutions I believe can make a difference,” Moore said of the bill.

Rent cap

S.B. 4 originally included a measure that would cap annual rent increases at 4 percent, plus the Consumer Price Index, but amended language released Monday afternoon excluded that portion.

This led to some conflicts during Tuesday’s meeting, as many members had already signed up to testify on the rent cap. 

A bill that included the 4 percent rent cap had a public hearing last week that lasted more than 14 hours. Hundreds of people signed up to speak on the issue, which is meant to help address rising rents in Connecticut — increases that many have said they can’t afford.

Although Moore began the meeting asking participants to stay on topic with the current versions of the bills, several participants tried to speak on the issue. Some cited a General Assembly rule that says subject matter for public hearings must be posted at least five days before a hearing.

“We’ve heard the people on the bill,” Moore told one participant, recalling the number of people who spoke about rent stabilization. “I think it’s quite serious to have that many people, but there’s also other bills on here that have not had a public hearing.”

“It’s simply that this issue is so incredibly important that we will insist on being heard, and the process of how this bill — the language that was released and then changed — I don’t have too much to comment on that, other than the core point is that this is life or death,” said Luke Melonakos-Harrison, an organizer with Connecticut Tenants Union and rent cap advocate.

Zoning: GOP wants 8-30g reform

Local zoning and 8-30g were also discussed at length during Tuesday’s meeting, with many similar arguments heard in last year’s legislative session.

Republicans brought forth a bill that would add what’s called “naturally occurring affordable housing” to towns’ counts under 8-30g.

The affordable housing law offers court remedies to developers whose proposals for affordable housing are rejected. Towns are exempt if at least 1o percent of their housing is deed-restricted affordable. But this includes only affordable housing that is government subsidized, such as apartments occupied by people with Section 8 vouchers or housing developed with low-income housing tax credits.

The Republicans’ proposal, H.B. 5326, would add naturally occurring affordable housing, or housing that has lower-cost rents without restrictions. It’s typically older housing and can be at risk of price increases.

“We hear a lot from my district that local control is being taken over by Hartford, and we need to address that here and in Hartford to make sure that’s not happening,” said Housing Committee ranking member state Rep. Tony Scott in a press conference. “We need to have locally elected officials making sure they’re making decisions about what’s best for the towns.”

Those in favor argued that 8-30g doesn’t work and puts undue burdens on small towns.

“It is a draconian law that creates little affordability but allows out-of-scale developments, killing neighborhoods and proper planning because it avoids zoning altogether,” said Alexis Harrison, a Fairfield zoning commissioner. “It’s a litigation generator and pits towns against the cities.”

Harrison is also part of the group 169Strong, a group that opposes many statewide zoning reform measures.

Housing experts spoke against the bill, saying that it would make 8-30g a less effective tool, wouldn’t encourage more affordable housing and would be difficult to implement.

If only 10 percent of a town’s housing stock is affordable, including both naturally occurring and deed-restricted, the vast majority of the housing is unaffordable, advocates pointed out.

“It is an unserious bill that weakens one of the only laws in Connecticut that can be used to expand housing supply in NIMBY towns that refuse to allow multifamily housing to be built,” wrote Dice Oh, a Stamford-based housing advocate. “If anything, 8-30g needs to be strengthened and apply to all towns in Connecticut, as the housing shortage is a regional problem that all localities must help alleviate.”

It would also be hard to count naturally occurring affordable housing, state Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury, pointed out. The cost of an apartment can change quickly, he said, making it tough to ensure housing that’s been counted as affordable stays that way.

“It would be a management nightmare,” he said.

“Fair Share” proposal divides housing advocates

Many who supported the 8-30g bill opposed the separate bill that would reform statewide zoning and require towns to plan and zone for certain amounts of housing. Many of the objectors said the measure erodes local control and imposes a “one-size-fits-all” approach.

The so-called “fair share” bill would require an assessment of the state-wide need for affordable housing and determine how that need fits within regions. Towns would then have to plan and zone for a certain number of units based on the needs of their region.

A municipality’s share would be based on several factors, including its grand list, median income, population below the poverty line and the percentage of its population that lives in multi-family housing. The proposal also sets penalties for communities that don’t submit plans. 

A similar bill was proposed last session and has support from a coalition called Growing Together Connecticut.

“This bill is not only the right thing to do to address Connecticut ’s affordable housing and housing segregation crises, it is also the smart thing to do to boost our economy overall, especially as we emerge from a global health pandemic,” wrote Elaine Betoncourt, a member of Sisters of St. Joseph, in public testimony. “This bill will provide a set of tools and laws that make sure our zoning and planning systems are fair and equitable.”

Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, which is one of the organizing groups of Growing Together, said a similar policy had been successful in New Jersey.

In addition to Westport’s Steinberg, several other lawmakers and local officials, mostly from Fairfield County, spoke against the bill.