Rich Vs Poor Pt III

America’s Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing

A Watered-Down Law

All of this comes 30 years after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled for the first time that exclusionary zoning practices that quash moderate-priced housing are illegal. That groundbreaking case involved a truck driver attempting to build an affordable single-family home in middle-class East Hampton that was smaller than the minimum square feet the town required. The justices ruled against the town, saying its requirements “are a form of economic discrimination.”

In the following months, state lawmakers passed a law that set the stage for the courts to review local zoning decisions in towns with few affordable homes. Most notably, the law — commonly referred to by its statutory reference as 8-30g — outlined the process for developers to bypass local zoning decisions by going through the courts if they set aside 30% of a project’s units for poor people.

The construction of affordable housing off of Westport’s highly commercialized Route 1.

But the law had limited impact. Just 2% of all the housing developed in Connecticut since then is dedicated to low-income families. Since the law passed, the share of housing for low-income residents has actually decreased in 47 of the state’s 169 municipalities, according to the state Department of Housing data.

“Any developer who’s going to use [this law] has to be ready for the potential of a long, expensive slog, first through the zoning commission and then through the court system,” said Timothy Hollister, the land-use attorney who won the East Hampton case. He has been trying since 2005 to win approval for a client to open affordable units in Westport.

Each year, legislators filed a slew of bills to weaken the law.

State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, a Republican from Fairfield who served as the ranking member of the legislature’s Housing Committee from 2013 to 2018, said her top committee priority is to scale back the law.“Predatory developers are taking advantage of communities, and we aren’t getting much affordable units out of it,” she said. “In 30 years, the needle hasn’t moved. It’s not working. Let’s brainstorm and come up with some ideas that may actually work.” Former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican from Fairfield, said amending the law was a big issue for his caucus during his 16 years in the state Senate. “Look, I get the argument that you need it. You can’t let the Westports and the Greenwich’s off. You have to have something. I just think there is a better way,” said McKinney, who left office in 2014 to run for governor, a bid he ultimately lost. He and Kupchick believe the state should provide financial incentives for towns that allow more affordable housing to be built within their borders. Otherwise, he said, developers game the system.

“They are not really out to build affordable housing for the community. They are out to build market-rate housing, and if they have to put some affordable units with it to get approval, that’s what happens,” McKinney said. “There are developers who literally come into these meetings with two plans and say, ‘Give us this plan, or you get this affordable housing plan.’” After years of failed attempts, lawmakers in 2017 finally weakened 8-30g by making it easier for towns to get exemptions from the law’s requirements. Malloy vetoed the measure because he said it would “perpetuate the harmful effects of bad economic policy and institutional segregation.” But the General Assembly overrode the veto. This March, the Department of Housing granted Westport — where 3.4% of the housing is considered affordable — a four-year exemption, which prevents a judge from overriding its zoning decisions.

The exemption protects the town from legal challenges, but it came after the zoning commission had already approved 44 new low-income units, mostly studios or one-bedroom units with monthly rents starting at $1,400. A commissioner made it clear during project hearings that only the threat of a lawsuit under 8-30g persuaded him to approve the plans. And now that threat is gone.“The statute requires me as a commissioner to essentially pass this proposal, or give very narrow reasons for denying it, none of which were presented as evidence to this commission. So we don’t have that option. We must pass it,” said then-Commissioner Alan Hodge, a Democrat, before the 2016 vote. Westport currently has 265 units for low-income individuals that were constructed with public or private funding, though one-third of those units replaced existing affordable housing. For example, the town purchased Westport’s only trailer park and replaced its 60 mobile homes with 93 affordable apartments run by the local housing authority.

What this means is that approximately 1 out of every 30 housing units in Westport is dedicated to low- or moderate-income residents, compared with 1 in 8 next door in Norwalk, or 1 in 5 in Bridgeport 9 miles away.

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