Affordable housing in the “home of home rule”

When it comes to affordable housing, some Southeast Connecticut lawmakers are stressing the importance of local control as the 2023 legislative session nears.

Aundre Bumgardner, elected Democratic state representative for the 41st district, said the ability of local governments to set their own course is at the center of the district which he called “the home of self-reliance.”

The recently redesigned neighborhood covers parts of Stonington and Groton. It no longer includes New London.

He pointed to the layers of fire districts, boroughs and subdivisions of the district which each have their own ability to regulate land use.

“I believe that’s a strength of Groton, that neighborhoods can really define their future and retain their character,” he said.

The idea of ​​protecting a city’s character often comes up at the local level in the context of affordable housing. He has been invoked at zoning commission meetings to defend the status quo when new developments are proposed. But housing advocates argue it’s a vague term that contributes to discrimination against newcomers.

The 2021 Legislature passed a measure clarifying that the term cannot be used to deny an application for affordable housing unless the definition of character is “expressly articulated in regulations with clear and explicit physical standards.”

Bumgardner was first elected as a Republican to the House of Representatives in 2015. Aged 20 at the time, he later served a term as the youngest member of the house. He will return to Hartford as a Democrat with experience as a Groton City Councilman and a member of the City of Groton Planning and Zoning Commission.

“I have been intimately involved in planning and decision-making as we have balanced unprecedented growth with (Electric Boat) and the need for housing development, but also respecting the character of our communities,” he said. -he declares.

He was assigned to the Legislature’s Planning and Development Committee, which is responsible for legislation relating to a range of topics, including housing, zoning and autonomy.

Bumgardner said he intends to raise bills on housing-related topics that support good cause evictions and the power of tenant unions.

The odd-year legislature gives individual legislators the ability to introduce bills on any topic, as opposed to even-numbered years where bills are limited to those raised by committees.

In a district that has seen a heated debate over short-term housing rentals, Bumgardner said that’s a conversation that needs to happen at the state level as well.

Short-term rentals, popularized with the rise of sites like Airbnb and Vrbo, involve stays lasting from 1 to 30 days.

“I’m absolutely concerned that these big corporations are buying homes in downtown Mystic in particular and converting them into tourist destinations,” he said. “Our neighborhoods are not zoned or regulated for this.”

It’s an issue that affects housing affordability in the district, according to Bumgardner. He said short-term rentals limit the housing stock, driving up house prices, rents and property taxes.

Water and sewer

For State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, any discussion of affordable housing in the region must consider infrastructure limitations that she says prevent multi-family construction in many of the small towns she represents.

“You can change all the zonings you want. If they don’t have water or sewage, they won’t be able to build,” she said.

Osten is co-chairman of the powerful Legislature Appropriations Committee.

She said her job as an affordable housing legislator is to help cities secure funding for water and sewage systems in her 10-city district stretching from Ledyard to Marlborough.

Osten said she had been trying for three years to secure $3.7 million for Hebron to extend its water line from Lake Amston to the center of town. She said residents are actively engaged in creating affordable housing in the city – “but without it they can’t”.

Affordable housing advocates say developers have found ways to build affordable housing developments without sewers when the site is in operation. Other approaches include the preservation of existing houses through the repair and maintenance of the existing housing stock.

Osten also criticized a change in 2021 in the rating process used by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority to administer federal tax credits to developers of affordable housing. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program was created under the federal Tax Reform Act of 1986 to engage private interests in solving the affordable housing problem after public efforts had failed.

The new system awards points in several categories to prioritize sustainable developments that serve more low-income people in places that offer them the most “opportunities” to thrive. The authority’s goal is to support development in areas that are good to live in but don’t have many affordable options.

Critics like Osten say the agency’s focus means more money is going to developers in wealthier parts of the state.

“It’s a lot more complicated than just having a discussion about affordable housing,” she says. “So I talk a lot about infrastructure, I talk a lot about the policies that are being made, and I talk about the fact that they want to keep pushing western Connecticut to build affordable housing — and I think they should — ​​but we waste time when we prioritize this end of the state and don’t prioritize our end of the state.

Local control

State Representative Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said she saw the need for affordable housing most vividly through her role with the Thames Valley Council for Community Action over the past quarter century . Among other things, the social services agency administers several programs with the goal of ending homelessness and providing affordable housing.

“We’ve made a lot of progress, but we know there’s still a long way to go,” she said.

McCarty sees it as the first and foremost responsibility of cities to provide “adequate housing” for different income levels and needs – on its own terms without state mandates.

“I don’t espouse heavy-handed approaches,” she said.

State efforts over the past three decades to promote affordable housing despite local resistance relied heavily on a law known as 8-30g. The law allows developers to circumvent local zoning restrictions by suing the city if their affordable housing projects are rejected. In such cases, the burden of proof is on the municipality to demonstrate that the risk to public health or safety outweighs the need for affordable housing.

Municipalities are liable for the 8-30g requirements until 10% of their housing stock is restricted as affordable. Once the threshold is reached, developers no longer receive an automatic call when submitting plans that violate zoning regulations.

McCarty cited Waterford as an example of a city that has successfully met the 10% target. State calculations put the percentage at 5.62% last year.

A 40-unit, $16 million affordable housing development is being built on 16 acres next to the Target store on Route 85 in Waterford. Eighty percent of the units will be reserved for low-income households. Another developer has plans for 40 tiny homes on Great Neck Road, where 10% will be earmarked as affordable by state standards.

The 8-30g statute came to the fore in the gubernatorial race this year when Republican candidate Bob Stefanowski said he wanted to repeal it during a September debate between himself, the Democratic governor Ned Lamont and independent candidate Rob Hotaling.

McCarty questioned the effectiveness of 8-30g, but said she would listen to conversations on the issue over the coming months.

Currently, 31 out of 169 municipalities have met the state’s 10% affordable housing target, including Groton, New London and Norwich.

Bill Cibes, a former New London Democratic state representative who helped create 8-30g more than 30 years ago, told The Day earlier this year that the law hadn’t been as effective. than he hoped.

He cited local resistance as the reason.

“If you look around in different cities, there aren’t many cities, suburban towns, that have enough housing for low-income people and people of color,” he said. . “In many ways, it doesn’t seem fair to me to expect that their teachers and their police and their city workers and the workers who work the estates of these towns can’t live there.”

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