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New Jersey report highlights impacts of bill proposed in Connecticut

Connecticut Public Housing advocates march from Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford to the Legislative Office Building, December 2022. Growing Together Connecticut, a coalition of 38 Connecticut organizations, held a press conference, asking elected officials to turn their words into actions and address the high cost of housing.
Tyler Russell/Connecticut Public
CT Mirror
Connecticut Public Housing advocates march from Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford to the Legislative Office Building, December 2022. Growing Together Connecticut, a coalition of 38 Connecticut organizations, held a press conference, asking elected officials to turn their words into actions and address the high cost of housing.

A new report from a New Jersey agency outlines how a state policy that requires towns to provide their “fair share” of the regional need for affordable housing has worked to double the rate of affordable housing production, ramp up the number of multi-family dwellings and integrate communities in recent years.

The policy, established by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1975, is the basis for a zoning reform proposal making its way through Connecticut’s legislature. The New Jersey Fair Share Housing Center on Wednesday released a report on the policy’s successes, as well as lessons for other states to implement fair share. In 2015, New Jersey reinvigorated enforcement of the policy, and Wednesday’s report outlined the results of that work.

House Majority leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, spoke at Wednesday’s press conference, signaling his support for a fair share policy in Connecticut.

That proposal, House Bill 6633, passed the Housing Committee in March. The first drafts of the Appropriations Committee’s budget didn’t include a mention of the policy, although Housing Committee leadership say they’re negotiating for it.

“If we look at fair share in New Jersey and try to model that here in Connecticut — because we face a lot of the same issues in many of our states and particularly blue states, right?,” Rojas said Wednesday. “We’re a blue state, we’re progressive. I don’t know how really progressive we are on housing policies. In fact, we’re actually quite regressive.”

Rojas said he and other lawmakers are meeting with stakeholders and people who opposed the bill to try to reach a compromise. He’s hopeful it will pass this session, he said.

The bill would require the Office of Policy and Management to work with the departments of housing and economic and community development to assess the affordable housing needs by region in the state and allocate the need to each region’s municipalities.

Towns would then be required to plan and zone to meet that need.

The bill, like other zoning reform measures, has met stiff opposition from many who say it would impose a one-size-fits all approach and weaken local control.

The measure is being pushed by Growing Together CT, a consortium of faith groups, housing advocates and experts.

Such a measure would likely have broad implications for zoning policy across the state and would challenge the single-family zoning ordinances that have dominated much of Connecticut’s land for decades.

“If you believe in addressing social problems systematically, a healthy housing ecosystem is a core solution to addressing inequities in wealth accumulation, educational attainment, health outcomes, and our justice system,” Rojas said in a press release. “At a time when housing is more expensive than ever, we need strong action to break down these barriers and build on what New Jersey has learned about how to do that.”

Housing experts argue that exclusionary zoning practices have made it hard to build enough affordable housing or multi-family housing in Connecticut.

The state lacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. Housing is typically considered affordable if residents are spending up to a third of their income on these costs. Many households in Connecticut are paying far more than a third of their income on housing.

Historically, local zoning policies have been used to enforce segregation, and speakers at Wednesday’s press conference highlighted how those decisions have led to heightened segregation today.

“We can see ZIP code by ZIP code the layers of entrenched segregation that remain to this day. We see this in our schools,” said Crystal D. Charley, vice president of NAACP’s NJ State Conference. “We see this in access to health care. We see it in so many walks when we look at our social determinants of health and just how we’re living. Segregation in housing has led to segregation in every aspect of life.”

In New Jersey, the state reported that its fair share policy accounted for the “overwhelming majority” of all multi-family development in participating municipalities from 2017-2022. Municipalities that participated also saw more diverse communities, the report says.

The policy has created more than 70,000 units of housing since 2015, including more than 21,000 deed-restricted homes, the report says.

The report includes lessons learned for other states implementing fair share including: developing a methodology that prioritizes affordable housing in exclusionary neighborhoods, strong legal frameworks for enforcement, and a requirement that homes have long-term affordability for people most likely to be excluded.

Fair share in Connecticut has met fierce resistance this legislative session, much of it from local officials and some state lawmakers, particularly from Fairfield County. They say that the requirement is onerous and would impose a one-size-fits all solution that ignores the needs and challenges of individual towns.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities was among groups that submitted testimony against the bill. The group said that it would implement a “top down policy onto the backs of local governments,” and establish penalties for towns that don’t comply.

“CCM has serious concerns that the proposed legislation is impractical and imposes harsh penalties on municipalities through lawsuits and ‘default zoning,’” the written testimony reads.

Opponents have also said they fear the measure would be expensive for municipalities to implement, particularly if they need to hire additional city planning staff or extend services like water and sewer.

The bill would cost the state just over $240,000 in fiscal year 2024 and have “a potentially significant cost to various municipalities,” beginning in fiscal year 2025, according to a legislative fiscal note.

Connecticut’s bill includes enforcement mechanisms through the courts and a “default zoning scheme” if towns don’t comply. The New Jersey study says that strong legal frameworks for enforcement of the policy is necessary in order to successfully implement fair share.

Connecticut’s bill would have a default zoning based on a town’s infrastructure if the town doesn’t comply with the policy.

In areas where towns have water and sewer capacity or those services could be provided by extending existing services at a developer’s expense, the default zoning would allow multi-family housing of up to 20 units per acre with certain affordability requirements.

Interested parties — certain nonprofits and developers — can also file lawsuits against towns that don’t comply.

The New Jersey measure was implemented through a court order.

Last year, housing advocates in Connecticut filed a lawsuit in Woodbridge that asks for implementation of a fair share policy. The lawsuit alleges the town’s zoning policies violate the state’s Fair Housing Act and portions of the state constitution by restricting the number of multi-family units that can be built.

The case has been referred to the Superior Court in Hartford and was assigned Tuesday to Judge Andrew W. Roraback.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.