‘CT Senate passes bill to help convert offices into apartments’ | CT Mirror

May 1, 2024

A bill that would require Connecticut towns to allow developers to turn vacated office buildings into apartments without a special zoning hearing passed the state Senate on Wednesday after several hours of debate.


Senate Bill 416 is one of the first bills that would mandate changes to the way municipalities regulate land use to pass through either chamber this session. Zoning and land use has gotten heightened attention in Connecticut and nationwide as the country grapples with a lack of affordable housing.


The bill passed Wednesday evening largely along party lines, with two Democrats not voting. Lawmakers debated the bill for about six hours.


S.B. 416 would require that towns allow developers to convert commercial buildings such as office buildings, former shops and hotels into residential spaces without a special zoning commission hearing, or as-of-right. Developments would still have to follow building and fire safety codes.


Many states and localities are considering such measures, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people’s jobs switched from in-office to remote, and owners of office spaces have struggled to find tenants.


The goal is to make use of buildings that may become abandoned to prevent blight and to increase the state’s housing stock, said Planning and Development co-chair Sen. MD Rahman, D-Manchester.


“We all know we have thousands of commercial properties — office, retail, hotels, motels — closed, unused at this time,” Rahman said. “We have a housing shortage. If this bill passes, we’ll create more housing.”


Connecticut lacks tens of thousands of units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest-income renters. Housing experts say that the problem is a lack of supply, and restrictive local zoning regulations make it hard to build enough multi-family housing.


Opponents said during Wednesday’s debate that the bill would impose a one-size-fits-all solution on Connecticut towns and questioned how effective the policy would be.


The bill would require local zoning commissions to decide on an application for conversion within about two months of receiving it, although extensions are allowed. It excludes industrial buildings.

S.B. 416 passed out of the Planning and Development Committee in March. It’s been a topic of discussion for members of the majority leader’s affordable housing group. The group has been meeting in the months since the last session to talk with experts about solutions to Connecticut’s housing crisis.


Converting commercial properties to residential can be expensive and complicated. Many empty offices nationwide are the towers typically built in the 1960s to 1980s, which may be less desirable for apartments.


The design of the buildings can also make conversion difficult. But filling the empty buildings can help keep neighborhoods lively and prevent vandalism and blight.


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The Biden administration last year issued guidance on federal programs that can help ease some of the financial burdens and complications of converting commercial buildings to residential.


Debate followed a familiar path Wednesday, with proponents arguing for the need to build more housing and opponents arguing against the loss of local control and one-size-fits-all solutions.


“The office buildings and retail buildings are closed,” Rahman said. “How are we going to use them?”


Planning and Development ranking member Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, opposed the bill, saying that there could be unintended consequences and calling passage “unwise.”

“It’s not possible for us from Hartford to be legislating that sort of policy outcome, one-size-fits-all without expecting negative consequences,” Fazio said.


Sen. Jeff Gordon, R-Woodstock, also opposed the bill and questioned assertions that zoning is the biggest barrier to building up a sufficient housing stock.


Many housing experts, studies and state officials have confirmed that restrictive zoning is tied to the lack of affordable housing in Connecticut.


“We’ve heard a lot that zoning stands in the way,” Gordon said. “And I guess if you say something long enough, you can hope that it becomes the truth. But the reality is that’s not the truth at all.”


The bill next goes to the House for approval.