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CT 'Work Live Ride' bill unlikely to pass this session

Dec 19, 2023

A bill that would have incentivized towns to increase residential density near train and bus stations isn't likely to pass this session, Connecticut Democrats said Tuesday morning.

The bill — known as Work, Live, Ride — would give certain infrastructure funding to towns that zone for more housing near public transit. It has a sliding scale for percentages of affordable housing and aims to create walkable communities.

Work, Live, Ride will "probably not" make it to the House floor this session, said House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford. It's not likely the state will see major zoning reform in this session, which ends at midnight Wednesday.

"We strongly believe more should have been done this session to tackle our state's severe housing crisis, but also think we’ve built a framework that can support our efforts to see more affordable and sustainable homes in Connecticut in the very near future," said Pete Harrison, director of Desegregate Connecticut. Desegregate Connecticut is a program of the Regional Plan Association and advocated for the Work, Live, Ride policy.

Drafts of the state budget, which passed the House early Tuesday morning, would make collaboration with the state's Municipal Redevelopment Authority optional. They would also require towns that decide to work with the authority adopt zoning regulations that allow housing development in "development districts," or areas encompassing transit stations or downtowns. The authority can offer technical and financial support to towns.

The news about Work, Live, Ride comes the same day as the publication of a new Urban Institute study that ties restrictive zoning policies in Connecticut to segregation.

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The study found that people who live in neighborhoods with mostly single-family zoning tend to have higher incomes and are more likely to be white. There are higher concentrations of people of color who have lower-incomes in neighborhoods with zoning that allows two or more housing units per parcel and more renter-occupied housing.

"These findings paint a picture of a state where localities’ zoning either divides or reinforces the division of residents by income, race, ethnicity, and education levels," the study says.

Researchers also found that suburbs and towns in Connecticut tend to have more restrictive zoning while larger cities are more likely to permit multifamily construction. Local zoning policy has historically been tied to pushes to segregate based on race. Researchers say it's still effectively segregating the population, often based on income, which can disproportionately impact people of color.

"Historically, zoning has been used intentionally as a tool for racial and ethnic segregation," the study says. "Today's zoning continues to promote, or at least does not deter, this type of segregation."

Zoning has been a contentious political issue in Connecticut for years. This session, which many advocates thought was a promising one for statewide reform, hasn't returned the results many expected.

Opposition to zoning reform has been fierce. Residents and some state lawmakers, particularly those from Fairfield County, have said that the proposals are onerous, weaken local control and impose one-size fits all solutions on towns.

Opponents says they’d prefer to keep zoning control at the local level, but housing advocates and experts say a statewide or regional approach is needed.

Late last week, House Democratic leadership announced that its signature housing bill would contain no zoning mandates and was unlikely to increase affordable housing in Connecticut. The state lacks tens of thousands of units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters, and thousands of residents are paying more than a third of their income to housing costs.

The bill, which awaits passage in the Senate, instead focuses on measures to improve housing quality and protections for renters.

It also contains a couple of the early-stage structural elements that would be needed to enact zoning reform that lawmakers considered this session. Lawmakers added the housing omnibus measures to Senate Bill 988 early Saturday morning.

The Senate bill puts the existence of the Office of Responsible Growth into statute. The office was created through an executive order under former Gov. Jodi Rell.

It aims to coordinate state efforts to revitalize towns and offers support to various committees and agencies that work on land use and planning efforts across the state. It's also an integral piece of the Work, Live, Ride proposal.

The proposal would have towns that may have limited planning staff work with the office as they zone for development near their transit stations.

Harrison said that the provisions in the senate bill were a win and added that he wished state officials could have seen the zoning study earlier in the session.

"The bill lays a strong foundation for getting our transit-oriented communities incentive program passed next session that will lead to more homes and jobs built around public transit," Harrison said in his statement.

The Senate bill also includes certain requirements related to "fair share" — that the state conduct a regional assessment of the need for more affordable housing, develop a methodology for dividing that need and compile information on how many more units each town would have to have to fulfill that need. It's a watered-down version of the "fair share" proposal and contains no mandates.

"Optimal, cost-effective housing strategy is only accomplished when thoughtful consideration is given to the unique and hyper-local factors and constraints of each municipality individually," Connecticut GOP chairman Ben Proto said in a statement about the omnibus bill. "This is reckless policy making that does not address finite land, financial and natural resources, and environmental impacts."

With just two days left in the legislative session, the bill needs approval from the Senate before it can move forward.

Democrats have described it as informational, while Republicans say they fear that it will be used to push mandates on towns down the line.

"It's to provide more information to people who are concerned about what that world [with zoning reform] looks like for their community," Rojas said. "And that was the ultimate goal of continuing forward with the needs assessment, analysis and allocation of numbers to communities so that they can have an idea of what it looks like, and then we can go from there and make determinations about how to achieve that goal."

Urban Institute researchers said in an interview Tuesday that to address the affordable housing need, it will take a more complex solution that includes zoning reform.

The study specifically points to "fair share" as a possible solution, and researcher Yonah Freemark said that the team also saw that there is a "tremendous demand" for housing in walkable areas near transit stations.

"We need to provide significantly more housing in these neighborhoods where people want to live and by providing significantly more housing, prices will go down," Freemark said.

But that drop won't come immediately — it could take years for the effects to trickle down and improve housing affordability for the lowest-income renters. New construction also tends to be some of the housing with more expensive rents, unless the government offers subsidies, researcher Lydia Lo added.

"When you’re talking about timelines that are that long, you’re leaving a whole lot of people that are in need of housing right now in the lurch," Lo said.

Zoning reform is needed, but states also need to increase investment in programs that support building more affordable housing and help people pay rent, researchers said.

"It's a systemic long-term change to allow areas to adapt to the demand for housing," Lo said. "But it's not necessarily something that's going to solve affordability in the near-term."

Rojas said that he thinks public sentiment in Connecticut largely reflects a demand for more affordable housing despite fierce opposition.

"We’d like to see the state be more involved," he said Tuesday. "I think it's changing legislators’ sentiments, or I mean, how we address the noise that comes from a very small group of active people."

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Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter and a Report for America corps member. She covers a variety of topics ranging from child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021.