As the deadline for affordable housing approaches, Connecticut’s cities’ response is a mix of pushback and innovation — and an allegation of perpetual segregation
Facing a state-imposed deadline on Wednesday, Connecticut communities this spring completed work on their formal plans to provide more affordable housing — though many warn the state’s goal is not practice.
As of May 23, fewer than 50 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities had filed plans, according to the state’s Office of Policy and Management.
Although the state wants every community to have at least 10% of its housing labeled as affordable, the most common theme in the various housing plans is that conditions vary widely from city to city.
Middletown, for example, reported that 22.4% of its housing is already considered affordable; while Bristol is just under 15%. The numbers drop a lot in rural and suburban towns and affluent communities: Granby is below 4%, Southington is at 5.3%, Westport is at 3.7%, and Fairfield is slightly below 2.5%.
In their plans, some communities — especially small rural towns — warn that encouraging or mandating affordable housing could create extraordinary costs in areas without sufficient water, sewer or other utilities. A few more built-up suburbs present a different argument, claiming that there is very little space for new large-scale housing.
Others seem to be more receptive to changing the way they handle residential development planning. Wealthy Westport, for example, is proposing to create an Affordable Housing Trust Fund that would function much like an open space preservation fund.
The Westport Planning and Zoning Commission recommends that the city set aside money each year to use for loans, grants and pre-development costs for creating affordable housing. It could bolster the fund by setting aside a percentage of land use or building permit fees, the commission suggests in the draft plan it recommended this month.
“You can also create a surcharge on all buildings and land use to allocate fees to the trust fund,” he suggested.
He also recommends the city immediately investigate whether five unused city properties could be made available for affordable housing, and suggests investigating whether the city could pay multi-family developers to restrict certain units to affordable rents.
This strategy could “increase the supply of affordable housing in Westport while maintaining the same density of development”, according to the plan.
“This planning exercise required by state law should not be seen as an obligation, but as an opportunity to create pathways for the development of a diversity of housing types that align with our modern values of creating equitable and diverse communities,” commissioned President Danielle. Dobin said in a statement.
Southington this week approved a plan that shares some of those elements. He proposed a housing trust fund to raise fees, grants and donations for affordable housing, and specifically suggests fees on zoning permits as well as an annual budget contribution.
The city should consider changing its zoning to allow the housing authority more dense, multi-story seniors’ apartment complexes, and perhaps allow buildings over four stories in the central commercial area if they provide affordable housing.
Southington should also consider allowing two- to four-family homes on arterial or collector streets, and street-front townhouses within walking distance of downtown and central Plantsville, the plan advises.
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Many community plans recommend encouraging more secondary suites, or in-law apartments, in existing homes, and some suggest density bonuses for apartment developers that restrict a set percentage of units for affordable housing.
Housing advocates have called on cities to be specific and provide measurable strategies in their plans, and at least one draft plan came under heavy criticism earlier this year.
The Regional Plan Association called the Western Connecticut Council of Governments’ draft plan too vague.
“The recommendations in the draft plan say very little about the concrete and achievable steps that need to be taken to actually create more affordable housing in WestCOG cities. The plan’s recommendations call for ‘investigating’, ‘assessing’ and ‘considering’ instead of acting,” RPA wrote.
The Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which represents Fairfield County and north of it, also suggested that Connecticut allow cities to pay neighboring communities to provide affordable housing that could be credited for their 10% target.
RPA called the idea “appalling”.
“It is a policy that condones, perpetuates and exacerbates the blatant residential segregation in the WestCOG area,” RPA wrote. “More affordable housing in all communities that meets the needs of people of all incomes and ages is essential to the sustainability and prosperity of the WestCOG region.”