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Emails reveal affordable housing rift in Lamont administration

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera Bruno sat for a “fireside chat” at the state’s one-day housing conference.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera Bruno sat for a “fireside chat” at the state’s one-day housing conference.

Emails between officials at Connecticut’s Department of Housing show a divide between lawmakers and DOH execs on proposed zoning reform. The emails have left lawmakers with questions about what’s being done to promote housing solutions.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Ginny Monk to discuss her article, “CT DOH official opposed ‘fair share’ housing policy, emails show,” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Ginny. State attempts to influence local zoning in Connecticut have always been contentious. Is that why you decided to dig deeper to seek the internal communications of the state Department of Housing?

GM: Certainly, that's part of it. The story was interesting in that I initially submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for communications, in part because the study on the fair share proposal was months delayed, and I wanted to know what was going on. And then the emails just turned up an entirely different story.

WSHU: Now, what is the story that the emails turned up for you?

GM: The emails revealed some internal communications from a few Department of Housing officials, one of whom was particularly opposed to the fair share policy. This came as a surprise because DOH did not submit testimony on the issue. And it's been pushed by some top Democratic lawmakers. So it was interesting to see some of this dissonance between lawmakers and the executive branch.

WSHU: Now, this is a very contentious issue as it has been discussed in the past. It's been discussed in the past couple of sessions, in 2023 and again in the 2024 session that there was just over. What exactly are lawmakers seeking to do?

GM: Sure. So, fair share is a concept that has been used in New Jersey. Essentially, what it would have the state do is assess regional housing needs and divide that need up among towns, and each town would be responsible for planning and zoning for a certain number of affordable units. And there's sort of a wide variety of affordability and some nuance there. But sort of the goal is to say to municipalities, look, this is the amount of housing that we need; this is what you need to do. And for those towns that have been sort of reticent to go on for more multifamily housing advocates see this as a remedy.

WSHU: Now, Michael Santoro is the director of Housing Policy at the Department of Housing, what did his emails show?

GM: So it showed, first, some pretty staunch opposition to the fair share policy with some really strong language attached to it. And it also sort of showed the way he is thinking about the department's responsibility to what's called affirmatively further fair housing, which is a federal HUD term associated with the Fair Housing Act, saying that governments have to do things to make sure everyone has equal access to housing. And sort of from his messages and from talking with lawmakers, it looks like there's not consensus among officials about what that means for Connecticut.

WSHU: Specifically, he felt that this was punishing communities.

GM: He did. And a lot of lawmakers took issue with that language, saying, you know, we don't feel that affordable housing is a punishment.

WSHU: Now, what are we trying to do with affordable housing? What exactly is the state trying to get communities to do to change their zoning regulations?

GM: Yeah, so there's sort of a wide variety of things the state would like to see. For many years now, housing experts have said that restrictive local zoning, that largely means without a special hearing in front of the zoning committee, you can't build multifamily housing. And many of the state experts have said that this is why Connecticut housing is so unaffordable, and there's really a whole bunch of ways that lawmakers have looked to address that there's been particular interest in what's called transit oriented development. So, building more housing near public transit, we saw some measures in the most recent legislative session to encourage more what's called light touch density. So three and four family houses. So, really, there are a lot of tools in the toolbox there.

WSHU: Now, let's get back to the study. What was the study meant to do?

GM: So in 2023, the legislature passed a housing omnibus bill largely focused on renters' rights that included a requirement that the states do what was essentially a study on the fair share policy. So they wanted the state to figure out what the housing need was, figure out a methodology to divide up the need and say, okay, under this proposal, under what we've researched, this is how many units of housing each town would be asked to plan in zone four. The goal was to give lawmakers a better understanding of the effects of the policy going into the 2025 legislative session where they want to consider their share again.

WSHU: Okay. And where does that study stand right now? Is there any recommendation that they are ready to consider in 2025?

GM: There is not. The state had said it's unlikely that there would be. The study was fairly delayed as the state looked for a contractor to conduct the study. There may be some information ready ahead of the 2025 legislative session. But they've said that complete study won't be finished.

WSHU: What's the governor's take on this after this was revealed?

GM: Yeah, so the governor's office put out a statement saying that the sentiments in the email were not reflective of how the governor's office feels, and went on to discuss his support, which is fairly well established for transit-oriented development. I think it's important to note here, though, that their share is not exclusively focused on transit-oriented development. Of course, you could do some of that type of development under a fair share policy, but it's really a lot broader than that.

WSHU: The House Speaker, Matt Ritter, and the president of the Senate, Martin Looney, have both been pushing for this. What exactly are they pushing for?

GM: Yeah, so it's actually the House Majority Leader, Jason Rojas, who has been really involved in a lot of these housing issues.

WSHU: Yes, I believe he had a task force that he was chairing.

GM: He did. Housing has been a big interest of his for the past several years; he and Martin Looney have both said, 'Look, we're really interested in fair share. This is something we want to debate.' They took issue and disagreed with a lot of the things in the internal emails from the Department of Housing.

WSHU: What happens now?

GM: So next up would be the elections and then we'll get a better sense of what the House and Senate will look like in 2025. We'll likely start to see some advocacy groups doing press releases, news conferences, sort of pushing for the policies that they want to see likely to include fair share, maybe as early as December of this year, and then we'll go into the session, see what information the state is able to provide on their share methodology from the study that a contractor is working on and we'll see how the session goes.

WSHU: In the meantime, we still have a serious housing crisis in Connecticut.

GM: We do. Thousands of people are spending too much money on housing.

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 reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.