Experts weigh in on low-income housing assistance map changes

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Aug. 18—After months of the Connecticut Finance Housing Authority and Eastern Connecticut legislators locking heads about the authority's new opportunity map, the politicians were disappointed at the authority's final version of its new guidelines.

Do the legislators have a point? Or is the authority right in how it's looking to focus federal funding for affordable housing? A little bit of both, according to two experts.

Sara Bronin, a land use professor at the University of Connecticut School Law and founder of Desegregate CT, an advocacy coalition comprising nonprofit groups, said, "Town leaders have an unprecedented opportunity right now to utilize the COVID relief funding to promote the infrastructure and the planning for new housing options."

Whereas Bill Sweeney, an attorney who often works with real estate developers, said, "It should be a concern for everybody in eastern Connecticut. Effectively, the way they have reclassified the census tracts, they have basically shifted all funding priorities to the western part of the state and they've basically abandoned eastern Connecticut."

The region's legislators took exception to the now final changes to the 2022-23 qualified allocation plan, which alter the grading for the "opportunity score" of areas based on making sure tenants in subsidized, affordable housing have job and educational opportunities to move up the economic ladder. The scores consider school quality, proximity to community colleges, job availability and access to public transportation.

Areas determined to be "high opportunity" are more desirable to live in and the authority aims to award low-income housing tax credits to these areas.

The new plan assesses opportunity scores at a community level rather than municipal level, by looking at census tracts within a town rather than the town as a whole. This results in changes in scoring.

"As the Desegregate CT Zoning Atlas shows, many eastern Connecticut towns have one-size-fits-all zoning that only allows detached, large-lot, single-family homes — even around train stations and main streets," Bronin continued. "By opening up areas around train stations and town centers for multi-family housing, communities can do more than just earn points for CHFA applications: They can reverse population loss, support small businesses and enable walkable development that's better for the environment."

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the formula is missing the fact that "we're a nice area."

"That's so disturbing that they don't understand the value of rural Connecticut," she said earlier in August. "There's a lot to be valued in rural Connecticut. You look at those maps, it's a direct hit on three counties, Tolland, Windham and New London. It's a third of the land base in Connecticut."

Sweeney, who was once Bronin's student at UConn, is representing the firm seeking to develop the former Campbell Grain site in downtown Pawcatuck into 80-plus apartments. He often represents developers looking to build in the area.

"We're looking for DOH funding and certainly the changes in the map were of great concern to my client," he said. "There's so many areas of eastern Connecticut that have become unaffordable for people. I talk to developers all the time who would like to try to address that demand for affordable housing out here, but if CHFA is going to change the map and change their formulas, it could really create some obstacles for people doing projects in the eastern part of the state."

Bronin gave credit to local leaders for trying to make new housing options viable.

"One thing that we've seen over the last year (is) advocacy for zoning reform: The number of people who support new housing options in their communities outnumber the people who don't, and I think that's probably what local officials are responding to as they try to figure out how to improve the funding process," she said.

CHFA CEO and Executive Director Nandini Natarajan said the goal of the opportunity plan is to put low-income people in positions to succeed in areas "on the rise."

"I'm actually excited about this plan, I think it has the potential to bring affordable housing to areas that are thriving that lower-income people might want to live in," she said earlier this month. "Lower-income people deserve to live in areas that are thriving just as much as high-income people do."

Sweeney noted that he is not looking to attack the authority but he believes there has to be a more equitable distribution of affordable housing funding throughout the state.

"The need isn't isolated to Fairfield County ... You look at communities like Stonington where young people are growing up there and they simply cannot afford a place in that community to live, and they have to move away," he said. "You have communities where families that may have been there for generations can't stay because of the cost of housing. My feeling is any program should be made available across the board to towns. I understand the prioritization issue, without being specific to CHFA there needs to be some type of equity across the board. Eastern Connecticut can't be the forgotten stepchild again."

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