A bill that would revise local zoning laws in Connecticut to encourage the development of more affordable housing notched a legislative victory Thursday.
But the measure, which was the subject of a four-hour debate in the House of Representatives, is far less sweeping than the proposals initially promoted by activists.
The bill, which now moves to the state Senate for consideration, was approved on a largely party line vote of 84 to 59, with seven Democrats joining the Republicans in opposition.
Local control over zoning decisions long has been a principle cherished by some in Connecticut. But the practice has contributed to economic isolation and racial segregation across the state.
Over the past few months, advocates put forth a number of legislative proposals to reduce the barriers to the development of affordable housing in Connecticut’s suburbs.
One bill was built on the concept of “fair share zoning” and would have required communities to develop a plan to ensure they have an adequate stock of affordable housing. Other legislative proposals reduced parking requirements, legalized the construction of accessory apartments, and promoted development near public transit hubs and downtowns.
The bill that reached the House floor Thursday reorganizes and amends the state’s land-use statutes to provide greater clarity and tools for local planning and zoning boards, said Rep. Cristin McCarthy Vahey, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s planning and development committee. The bill also creates a panel to monitor municipal compliance with affordable housing benchmarks.
“As communities, we are connected to one another,’' McCarthy Vahey said. “COVID has taught us how much what happens in one place impacts another place. This bill and these provisions will help us understand that connection with one another and to support one another, both individually as communities and collectively as a state.”
The bill would allow for the construction of accessory apartments and it sets new limits on the number of parking spaces developers are required to build — capping them at one for studio and one-bedroom apartments and two for units of two bedrooms or more. But other provisions were stripped out of the bill before it reached the House. And a late revision was added that creates a mechanism allowing cities and towns to opt out of the parking and accessory dwelling rules if they meet certain conditions.
Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, a civil rights group, said the bill falls far short of meaningful reform.
“The Connecticut House of Representative passed a zoning bill with a grab bag of proposals that, taken together, don’t move the needle on addressing the state’s dual affordable housing and housing segregation crises,’' Boggs said in a statement after the vote.
“This is a shockingly bad outcome in a state which over the last year has felt increased scrutiny of how its exclusionary zoning practices contribute to racial disparities in health, education, policing and public safety, employment, and access to a range of resources,’' Boggs said. “Worse, this bill actually may set us back because there is a good chance it will be taken as the legislature’s answer to exclusionary zoning for years to come. It’s not an answer, it’s an abdication. It’s the legislative equivalent of prescribing vitamins to treat stage 5 colon cancer.”
But other advocates said the bill represents a step in the right direction.
“The bill takes a significant first step towards more inclusive communities by legalizing accessory dwelling units, capping excessive parking mandates and fees, requiring commissioner trainings, redefining ‘character’ based on physical standards, requiring the development of a model form-based code, and affirmatively furthering fair housing obligations,’' Desegregate Connecticut, a housing equity coalition and one of the bill’s chief champions, said in a statement.
UConn law professor Sara Bronin, the group’s leader, called the bill “a step toward progress.”
Suburbs and rural towns have long fought apartments and condominiums, which are generally more affordable than single family homes on large lots. As a result of zoning decisions made over the course of many decades, those communities remain overwhelmingly white. The state’s cities, where the bulk of Connecticut’s affordable housing stock is located, are home to a more racially and ethnically diverse population.
Critics of the bill, including many Republican lawmakers, said it undermines Connecticut’s tradition of local control and would strip communities of their unique flavor.
Rep. Joe Zullo, a Republican from East Haven, expressed concern that the bill would open the door to “state-mandated, top-down one size fits all zoning.”
The state would be better off expanding existing grant programs and tax credits that encourage developers to build affordable units, Zullo said.
“I don’t think anybody here disagrees that we want to promote diverse housing [and] make our state more liveable,’' Zullo said. “But do we want Hartford bureaucrats who have never visited our communities, who know nothing about our communities, telling us how were going to develop them?”
Earlier this year, hundreds of people testified at a public hearing that ran for 24 hours. In Fairfield County, the bill’s critics held numerous rallies.
Many of those critics “believe we are a government run from grassroots up ... not top down Hartford bureaucrats,’' said Rep. Terri Wood, R-Darien.
Wood said the measure raises many complex and important questions. But ultimately, she said she could not support it “for the simple reason that I think our communities right now do a very, very good job of determining what’s right for them.”
Rep. Jason Perillo, R-Shelton, said he, too, was concerned about undermining local control. “At the end of the day, this is a judgment about whether or not the state of Connecticut should tell local zoning commissions, folks elected at the local level, what they must do,” he said.
The Connecticut Council of Small Towns, a municipal lobbying group, said it was pleased that some portions of the bill, such as a proposal that would have allowed multifamily housing as a right, without requiring a public hearing, were stripped from the proposal.
“COST appreciates the efforts of lawmakers to address concerns with some of the most onerous affordable housing bills under consideration this session,” said Betsy Gara, the group’s executive director. “COST is concerned that the bill is premature. Towns are finalizing housing needs assessments and developing affordable housing plans to identify ways of addressing the housing needs of their communities and region. The plans will provide communities with a strong foundation to guide the development of more affordable, more attainable housing options.’'
House Majority Leader Jason Rojas acknowledged that the measure won’t immediately undo the state’s longstanding geographic polarization, but he said it signifies a start.
“The bill...is a step...aimed at addressing the legacy policy that results in divisions in our society that have kept us from reaching our collective potential,” said Rojas, a Democrat from East Hartford.
Daniela Altimari can be reached at email@example.com.