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Newington condos bring affordable housing and discussion

Shovels and hardhats for the ground breaking.jpg
Brian Scott-Smith
Shovels and hardhats for the ground breaking of a new 64 home, mixed-income housing project.

A Newington housing complex has sparked discussion of affordable housing in Connecticut. Is a new age of government housing coming?

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Tom Condon to discuss his article, “At Griswold Hills in Newington, the state’s affordable housing law has worked the way it was intended,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Tom, Connecticut's affordable housing law is known as 8-30g. Could you describe what it is? And what is it trying to do?

TC: I’ll take the last question first. It's trying to be an incentive to create more affordable housing. And what it does is create an appeals process. Now, when a developer walks into a town and wants to build multi-family housing that has at least 30% of the units set aside for people with lower incomes, that would be 80% and 60% of the area median income, or less, but that's the base standard. Now, let us say that in order to build a project like this, you need site plan approval and probably a zoning change. Well, let's say the local Planning and Zoning Commission turns it down.

Now, historically, the developer could take an appeal to Superior Court, but the court would assume that the Planning and Zoning Commission acted correctly. 8-30g was passed in 1989. It flips the burden of proof. What it does is say, okay, town, you now have the burden of proof that your rejection of this project has a good reason connected to public health or safety. You can't just turn it down because you don't like it.

You can't just turn it down because you claim it changes the community character, you have to have a specific reason, like it damages a waterway, it ruins a historic bay, some specific reason having to do with public health and safety. Otherwise, the court will reverse the appeal. That's what 8-30g does. It's an appeals process that puts the onus on the town to justify its rejection of an affordable housing project.

WSHU: Now, there's been historic opposition to this.

TC: Oh, has there ever.

WSHU: And right now it is actually playing a role in the gubernatorial election. Because one of the candidates, Republican Bob Stefanowski, has pledged to repeal 830-G if he gets elected. What are his reasons for seeking a repeal? And how does he explain that?

TC: he has pledged to repeal it, which is I guess, a popular position in some towns, particularly in lower Fairfield County. His rationale is that a lot of towns have not reached the 10% affordable housing standard, which in the statute, once the town has 10% affordable housing, it's no longer subject to the 8-30g appeals process.

WSHU: Many towns have not reached that threshold.

TC: Only 31 towns have, so all the rest have not. Now there's also a moratorium in the statute, where if you're making progress toward that goal, you'll get a moratorium on 830-G for four years. In other words, for the next four years, you don't have to meet that standard. Now, another dozen or so towns have gotten moratoriums, some towns have gotten two of them. Darien, for example. I mean, he's right in a sense that most towns haven't reached 10%. But that's not a legal standard. You don't have to do that, towns don't have to follow it. If they don't want to, under 8-30g, it's just an incentive to do it. And, you know, some towns are getting with the program.

The underlying problem, I think, is that anytime you connect the words government and housing or estate or and housing, there's a negative image. Some people think of the old and sad, public housing projects, the Father Panik Village in Bridgeport or the Stowe Village in Hartford or Bellevue Square, these projects that are in the public mind. Now, the 8-30g projects have nothing to do with that. The one point I was trying to make looking at Griswold Hills in Newington is it's a very attractive place to live, and as evidenced by the fact that it has a years-long waiting list.

WSHU: Now could you just describe the complex itself? What does it look like? It's 128 units and nine low rise complexes, right?

TC: It's called row and garden style. So there are these nine complexes that sort of look like row houses. Very attractive, very attractive. Undistinguishable. There are condominium complexes up and down the street from it and it's indistinguishable from those. It is very attractive and people want to live there.

WSHU: It blends into the neighborhood?

TC: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.

WSHU: And how long ago was it built? And you're telling us that it has a long waitlist?

TC: Yes, it was built in the mid 1990s. One of the first, actually one of the first 8-30g projects, it has three levels of affordability. 60%, 50%, 25%, of area median income. In other words, somebody can't make more than that to live there. And the two higher income levels waiting list is around four years, the 25% waiting list is something like seven to eight years because those units almost never turn over. Because they are so desirable. And that's where the housing shortage is in the state at that low and moderate income level.

WSHU: Now, we're trying to attract more people to stay in the state and bring people into the state. So we do need more affordable housing in Connecticut. Is the town of Newington pleased but what has been done here? How are they taking it?

TC: Very well. I mean, the former mayor said it's been, “very, very successful.” So when it was built, people in the area were apprehensive again, you know, I think the mindset is, this was funded with low income tax credits, which are a way of funding housing.

WSHU: And it didn't bring down housing in the neighborhood.

TC: No, it didn't affect property values. If anything, it enhanced them. People wanted to live there. You know, it functions like any other multifamily apartment complex. People move, people come, you know, young people sometimes move out to buy a house, people who sell houses move in, it's just a regular place to live.

WSHU: Okay. So the bottom line 8-30g has helped. But it isn't an ultimate solution to the affordable housing problem in Connecticut.

TC: Yeah, but it was never intended to be. It was intended to be one tool in the toolbox. And it has done that if you look at a place like Griswold Hills, I mean, you can see that there are affordable units there that work. A survey just released earlier this year found that 8-30g has been responsible for 85,000 affordable units. So it, it's had an impact, by all means, you know, it's just brought it around.

And so yeah, 8,500 affordable housing units, and another 18,000 market rate units in those same complexes. So the typical 8-30g project will have 30% set aside or affordable units at 70% market rate, but those market rate units tend to be a little less expensive than all market rate complexes. And that kind of addresses another gray area in the housing market. People who can barely afford market rate or you know, these will kind of hit that demographic as well. So 1,500 affordable units 18,000 market rate units. You know, it's an it's an impact,

WSHU: We actually have a shortage of 85,000 units.

TC: 85,000 units is a shortage. That is correct.

WSHU: And so we're very short of that with 8,500.

TC: Oh, sure. But I think the point there is, that doesn't mean that they're 85,000 people out on the street, they aren't homeless. That means that people are paying too much for housing, paying more than 30%, in many cases more than 50%. Housing in short housing is just too expensive, which discourages companies from moving here. So if we can create more supply to meet the demand that will bring the price down, making it easier for people to live here and easier for companies to recruit workers.

Governor Lamont said that the first question he's asked from companies that are thinking about Connecticut is, is there affordable housing? It's a real challenge. But if we can increase the supply, and again, 8-30g is just one tool. There are so-called inclusionary zoning requirements in many towns and any complexes, but it has to have 10% or 15% affordable housing. Some housing authorities, including Fairfield’s, are expanding their affordable housing portfolio.

Fairfield created a nonprofit housing entity that is creating affordable housing. So there are other tools out there, but we're still short, and it's something that really needs to be on the agenda.

WSHU: Now, so basically, what we have here in this election, is that the Republican Bob Stefanowski says he would repeal 8-30g. And Democrat Ned Lamont supports 8-30g.

TC: Yes. Well, at least he hasn't come out against it.

WSHU: He hasn't come out against it. So one definitely says he'd repeal it. And Democrat Lamont hasn't come out against it.

TC: I think that would lead us to conclude that he supports it. We need to find all the tools that are possible to create more housing, and I think towns, some towns at least, are getting the picture. You know, there are towns that outlaw multifamily housing in their zoning codes. Well, that's not getting it done. And there's a lawsuit against the town of Woodbridge over that. We need whatever it takes to get affordable housing.

For example, there's a proposal that was in the legislature last year that will come up again, about fair share housing, every town agrees to try to build its fair share of affordable housing. That's a proposal that's out there. There was a zoning reform that passed in 2021 that allowed for accessory dwelling units and forbade towns from banning multi-family housing. There's a lot of activism in the housing area. It is something we need. But you know, I really think that discussions like this are important. It's important to have them at the town level, because there is a negative mindset about affordable housing, you know, it conjures up these hideous housing projects of 60 or 70 years ago.

Go look at Griswold Hills or Heritage Glen in Farmington. There are a lot of very well done projects out there that can give people an idea of what we're talking about. We're not talking about recreating Bellevue square or Stowe village or Father Panik Village or any of these places. We are talking about very attractive and very functional housing for you know, for people who are working, for retired people, for you know, basically everybody.

WSHU: So bottom line, Griswold Hills in Newington is a success story.

TC: Yes, no question. And I think there are many, many more like it out there. You know, I think if you were to drive around the Greater Hartford area and look at all the apartment complexes built in the last 25 years, since 8-30g was enacted. I don't think you can tell the set aside developments from the market rate developments because they look the same.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a news fellow, working on the Long Story Short, Higher Ground, and other podcasts at WSHU.