Creating more housing in Connecticut is going to be a legislative battle | CT Insider

January 30, 2023

Article it appears in the CT Examiner:


If the recent meeting of the General Assembly’s Housing Committee is any indication, the goal of creating more dwelling units for a state that needs to attract tens of thousands of new employees for vacant jobs, is going to be a battle of attrition during this legislative session.


What could have been a brief, pro forma committee session to approve a variety of concepts for eventual public hearings turned into a running two-hour debate on the rights of tenants and property owners and the duties of a state legislature where rural and suburbans lawmakers oppose what they say is governmental meddling in their autonomy, while Connecticut is overly dependent on cities for most of the working-class and low-income housing.


Conservative state Sen. Rob Sampson of Wolcott, a new member of the committee promoted to the top minority slot on the panel, led Republican opposition to nearly every one of more than a dozen proposed concepts, from a bill that would establish a “right” to housing, to a top priority of Senate Democrats that in its current form is just two lines: “That the general statutes be amended to promote fair and equitable housing opportunities in every community in the state.”


“An act establishing a right is an absurdity, in my mind,” the sixth-term Sampson said during a colloquy that included references to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate. “The government certainly cannot establish a right to something that belongs to someone else. If you establish a right to housing, effectively what you’re doing is you’re saying that someone has a right to something that someone else produced.”


An owner of rental units himself, Sampson described the various Democratic bills as “A collection of policies that are damaging to housing providers that will ultimately exacerbate the problem of the housing shortage. That’s what the agendas have been thus far, with few exceptions. Maybe I’m too direct about it, but people need to hear what I’m saying.”


Sampson sparred with Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester and Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, the co-chairmen of the joint committee, setting a tone for forthcoming debates in the committee, then the floors of the Senate and House. “I believe housing is health,” replied Luxenberg, a real estate agent. “I believe housing is a fundamental human right. I find it hard to imagine a child being born with rights in pursuing life, liberty and happiness without a home.


Traditionally, committees in the early weeks of a legislative session set wide parameters on particular bills, which get fleshed out during the public hearing and closed-door leadership screening processes, Moore noted. “I think we’ve done a good job about being bipartisan about what we bring to the table,” she said after a Sampson criticism.


Another bill would approve a study of regional housing needs and issues of equity.


“I believe this proposal is looking at some very, very, very significant affordable housing disparities that exist across the state, in terms of access to affordable housing, in terms of affordable housing availability and the process by which affordable housing can be produced in different cities and towns across Connecticut,” Luxenberg said.


“I don’t know if you really answered my question,” Sampson replied. “I appreciate the attempt. If I can’t have an understanding of what is being proposed because we don’t know what the proponent is asking for, it makes it more difficult.”


After a point, veteran ninth-term Rep. Larry Butler, D-Waterbury, a software designer, reminded the committee that it’s in the early stages of the legislative session. “When we have all the details we get from testimony. we make up our minds to either support or reject concepts based on the information in front of us,” he said remotely, with a backdrop of downtown Waterbury. “So I hope that we can avoid the polarization and draw a line in critiquing our political affiliations in this process. We’ll have ample time to vote for or against, give our reasons why, when we have language in front of us.”


In fact, when it comes to polarization, nothing illustrates the partisan divide like the subject of housing.


The protracted debate on simply raising concepts for public hearings bodes poorly for any chances of eventual bipartisanship before the June 7 adjournment deadline, in a legislature where for decades, affordable housing mandates have failed.


Last year, only one notable housing-related bill was passed and became law, requiring communities with populations of 25,000 or more to adopt ordinances creating fair rent commissions by July 1, 2023.


But this session, there may be room for compromise, if lawmakers can agree on incentives for more towns to host more affordable along with market-rate units. One of two proposals that were approved to be drafted as committee bills by the housing Committee was the Senate Democrats “An Act Concerning Connecticut’s Present and Future Housing Needs” on the fair and equitable dwelling opportunities.


The other was introduced by Republicans led by House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford. It would expand tenant-income ranges to be included in the affordable housing appeals procedure that has been found to be onerous and outdated, but allows developers to use state courts to overrule local zoning decisions under the state 8-30g statute that is well-known by housing activists, lawmakers, local officials and developers.


Candelora said in a Thursday interview that local geography and access to water and sewage systems complicates what has been a statewide approach to persuading suburbs to create more housing. He noted that while most North Branford homes have well water for drinking and private septic systems, the town is also a watershed for Lake Gaillard, which makes up one-fifth of the town’s footprint and supplies public water for greater New Haven.


“I think we have to give towns more time to develop their own housing plans,” Candelora said. “Generally our caucus agrees with working with communities on the local nuances of affordable housing.” In North Branford, mostly zoned residential, less-dense garden apartments are a likely solution, compared to larger apartment units that have gone up in towns along the railroad lines such as Fairfield and now Stratford, he said.


“We have to be smart about letting towns approve affordable housing, because the infrastructure might not be there to put in affordable units,” he said. Some communities are in better position for denser housing because they have sewers, water, natural gas and that’s the conversation we should be having. “In Connecticut, NIMBY (not in my backyard) runs very strong and expense mounts when you put in a development of any size.”


Incentives, rather that mandates from the General Assembly, are a key, Candelora said.


House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, a longtime housing advocate now in his eighth two-year term, agrees that incentives are the better means of persuasion, but he’s concerned that straight-up party politics could muddle the public-policy debate in the weeks heading to the legislature’s June adjournment.


“I think we will expect an honest effort on the part of people concerned about housing opportunities,” Rojas said Thursday. “There is no silver bullet to the issue. I expect a lot of good ideas will come out. Some reactions are an over reaction. Some Republicans are taking this as a political issue.” He said the Republican bill that was raised for public hearing, to include already created units with some measurement of residential income levels to become included in the definition of local affordable housing stock would make it harder to develop new housing. “On its face it seems a huge step backwards,” Rojas said


Asked recently about his plans for the housing crisis, Gov. Ned Lamont declined to get into specifics that he will outline in February when he proposes his two-year budget to the General Assembly. “We’re going to make a big effort on housing,” he said. “It’s just the key to equity. It’s key to economic growth and opportunity. It’s going to be a big emphasis.”