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June 17, 2024

CT DOH official opposed ‘fair share’ housing policy, emails show

SHAHRZAD RASEKH / CT MIRROR Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera Bruno sat for a “fireside chat” at the state’s one-day housing conference.

Internal emails exchanged among high ranking officials at Connecticut’s Department of Housing last year reveal deep fissures between top Democratic lawmakers and higher-ups in the executive branch on a zoning reform policy idea known as “fair share.”

The back-and-forth between higher-ups at the Department of Housing shows that in 2023, as lawmakers were debating the fair share policy, staff lodged staunch objections to the idea. The emails, obtained by The Connecticut Mirror through a public records request, have left some lawmakers questioning DOH’s commitment to reducing racial and economic housing segregation.

“We continue to oppose the ‘fair share’ concept, which treats affordable housing like a punishment whose pain must be spread out amongst those who are the biggest Transgressors,” says an internal DOH memo sent in one email. “The obligation of the state is to affirmatively further fair housing; not to mandate it.”

To “affirmatively further fair housing” is a term connected to the federal Fair Housing Act, which the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines as a mandate to the government to go beyond simply not discriminating and take action that ends segregation.

Michael Santoro, DOH’s director of the Office of Policy, Research and Housing Support, sent the email to several top officials in the department, including Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno, on May 26, 2023. State agencies often offer feedback on proposed bills, but the emails — which were shared between DOH officials, but not sent to lawmakers — provide a window into executive branch opposition to a priority proposal for Democratic legislative leadership.

The “fair share” policy would have the state assess regional housing needs, then divide that need up among towns. Each municipality would be responsible for planning and zoning for a certain number of units of affordable housing.

“I think it was just really unfortunate and concerning to see the opinions being expressed by a staff person at the Department of Housing about fair housing questions or suggesting that the intent here is to punish communities as opposed to holding them accountable,” said House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.

Santoro sent his email toward the end of session, and lawmakers were still negotiating major pieces of what was meant to be a sweeping housing bill that bolstered renter’s rights, reformed statewide zoning policy and substantially increased the housing stock in Connecticut.

Ultimately, the bill became largely focused on renters’ rights and did nothing to increase housing stock.

“I think it speaks volumes of how hard of an effort it is to try to make progress on this when perhaps the Department of Housing, of all agencies, is obstructing this,” Rojas said. He and other Democrats said they thought the emails showed a general attitude toward affordable housing at DOH that doesn’t match the work of lawmakers.

Julia Bergman, a spokesperson for Gov. Ned Lamont’s office, said in a written statement to the CT Mirror that the email doesn’t reflect the governor’s view on fair share.

“The governor believes in incentivizing towns and cities to pre-zone areas that are prime for housing development with municipalities taking the lead on where they want those units to go,” Bergman wrote.

In a written statement, Mosquera-Bruno explained her view of the department’s role in the legislative process, but didn’t directly address fair share.

“During any legislative session, the Department of Housing is asked for input on various concepts and bills as drafted,” Mosquera-Bruno said in an emailed statement. “We provide that input from our unique perspective as the agency that implements policies voted favorably by the legislature and signed into law by the governor.”

A spokesperson for the department declined an interview request from the CT Mirror.

Democratic leaders say they think the messages show behind-the-scenes efforts to push back against legislation and provide a look at the executive branch’s unwillingness to be aggressive in ensuring all towns are building more housing.

“Their statement indicated an attitude within the department that is not necessarily friendly to what we’re trying to advance,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

He said he thinks it shows that DOH doesn’t want to challenge towns that have done little to create more affordable housing. “It seems to take an attitude that they really don’t have to worry about being forced to do anything,” Looney said.

Republican lawmakers expressed frustration that DOH didn’t make the views known more broadly during the 2023 session. They wanted more information, they said, while they were debating the bill.

“It’s frustrating and it’s disheartening that we don’t hear from them,” said Housing Committee ranking member Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe. “There’s so many times that we have public hearings and we have bills where we don’t even get any kind of feedback. I don’t know if they like it or don’t like it. That’s what the committee process is for. So I’m not getting it.”

Connecticut is one of many states grappling with a lack of housing and discussing how to address that need through zoning changes. The state lacks about 92,500 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest-income residents.

Thousands of families are paying more than a third of their income to housing costs, supply of homes for sale is low and homelessness is increasing. Housing instability can have wide-ranging effects on people’s health, economic security and community ties, among other outcomes, experts say.

The conflict is emblematic of the ongoing zoning debate at the state Capitol. Housing advocates and many lawmakers want to implement policies that require towns to allow developers to build more apartments. Others push for incentive-based methods that encourage towns to allow development.

It’s a perpetual debate among lawmakers and policy experts. Those who argue for incentive-based approaches say that takes into account the unique needs of towns and preserves local control. But housing experts have argued that towns have had years to allow more development, and many still won’t take action. So, they say, the state needs to step in.

Lamont has steered clear of publicly criticizing the fair share policy, although he’s said many times that he prefers incentive-based methods and wants to focus on transit-oriented development.

“The governor is particularly encouraging cities and towns to identify areas around transit hubs where housing could be built,” the statement from Lamont’s office said. “The governor is committed to significantly increasing the availability of affordable housing stock in Connecticut and simplifying the approval process for getting those projects done. Currently, work is underway on a fair share study, and we look forward to the results.”

Many key lawmakers who work on housing and zoning issues said they weren’t aware that DOH officials had any stance on the fair share policy, let alone one that leaves so little room for doubt.

“The challenge that we’re all facing is we all know we are at least 100,000 units short of housing,” said Planning and Development co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon. “I think that where our disconnect is, and probably where the Department of Housing’s disconnect is, is how we’re going to accomplish it.”

Rojas said he’d had conversations with DOH officials about objections to the policy but not to the extent the emails show.

“These are not entirely new views,” Rojas said. “I would just hope that it would be more of a partnership than a confrontation, and that’s what it feels like this is.”

Santoro’s email goes on to say that he thinks fair share is unfair.

“The purported concept here does not affirmatively further fair housing, it imposes one aspect of fair housing, affordable housing, and mandates it,” the memo on the fair share policy reads. “Further, it mandates it in such a way that it imposes its own determination of need on a region and a municipality.  

“It is a bastardization of the entire concept to ‘affirmatively further’ fair housing, and inherently makes it unfair.”

Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, said Santoro’s email demonstrates a “fundamental misunderstanding” of what it means to affirmatively further fair housing. OCA proposed and has pushed for the fair share concept for years.

“It’s troubling that the concerns raised in the emails are coming from one of the highest-ranking career staff at DOH,” Boggs said. “And most importantly, given the scale of the crisis with the state being one of the worst for renters in the nation, with huge increases in rent levels, being one of the most segregated states in the country, allowing the status quo to continue really just doesn’t rise to the level of solution that we need.”

Legislative reaction

Democratic lawmakers said they think the comments in the DOH emails show that agency leadership misunderstands the government’s role in ensuring everyone has access to housing.

“The civil rights obligation we have is to actively break down racial and socioeconomic housing isolation and segregation, which can’t, won’t and hasn’t been achieved with municipal plans alone,” said former Housing Committee co-chair Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester.

The emails detail concerns that the fair share bill doesn’t take into account that state law mandated that municipalities create affordable housing plans. More than half of Connecticut towns missed the deadline to finish their plans, and a handful still haven’t approved them.

The DOH document suggests “loss of discretionary funding opportunities” if towns don’t implement their plans rather than passing a fair share policy.

The 2023 fair share policy would have meant that certain groups such as nonprofits and developers can take towns to court if they don’t meet certain requirements to plan and zone for more affordable housing.

“In addition, the inherent intent of this legislation to authorize LITIGATION against our municipalities as a compliance mechanism; it provides ‘standing’ essentially to anyone with an axe to grind, and is self-serving by the drafters of this legislation, who have made it clear that their intent is to litigate this issue, up to the State Supreme Court, and potentially beyond,” the memo in Santoro’s email says.

Lawmakers and advocates took issue with that statement.

“Our proposal of fair share is a proposal for a strategy that is working elsewhere and would effectively produce thousands of units of both market-rate and affordable housing all across the state,” Boggs said. “Our hope would be that the Department of Housing would be supportive of it.”

New Jersey has a fair share policy, and a study published last year showed the state’s success in cutting down on segregation and building more affordable housing.

Rojas said he thinks it shows a misunderstanding of much of the country’s history with civil rights issues. While he said he doesn’t advocate for litigation, he understands that it is sometimes necessary.

“I don’t know if he’s ignorant of civil rights history, but whenever this country has had to make progress on a fundamental issue like this, there has been litigation,” Rojas said.

“Maybe we have the outcomes that we have because of these attitudes about economic isolation and racial isolation,” he added.

Looney said fair share is something he wants to look at again in 2025. It’s a concept he’s been interested in for years, he said.

“It does show the attitude within the bureaucracy toward some of the things we’re trying to do and why it’s so difficult,” Looney said.

Mosquera-Bruno’s statement to the CT Mirror pointed to the more than 12,000 units of new or rehabilitated units of housing that DOH has worked on since 2019 as progress.

“We will continue to work with our state, local, private sector, and nonprofit partners to alleviate the housing affordability burden felt by individuals and families in Connecticut,” her statement said.

Republicans said that while they agreed with the views in the DOH emails, they wish that the department had spoken up more publicly. Lawmakers spent a lot of time debating and negotiating the legislation without a complete picture, they said.

Scott said he agreed with many of the sentiments in the emails but wished DOH officials had come forward publicly with concerns.

“How much time do we waste as a legislature on fair share if this is not going to happen or not get pushed through by the administration?” Scott said. “That’s a waste of time. It’s a waste of taxpayer time.”

Planning and Development Committee ranking member Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, said he hadn’t heard the specifics of the complaints but agreed with DOH. He said fair share, as proposed in 2023, would be a “historic mistake” and would be an “extremely draconian” policy to impose on towns.

“In principle, I think the email recognizes the danger of mandating top down, one-size-fits-all housing policies,” said Planning and Development ranking member Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven. “Towns are best served when they can craft their own solutions.”

Politics of fair share

After weeks of negotiating, lawmakers announced late in the 2023 session that they would not implement zoning reform. Instead, their bill focused on tenants’ rights and included a requirement that the state’s Office of Policy and Management conduct what would essentially be a study on fair share.

The results and a suggested methodology to divide up the housing need were supposed to be ready for lawmakers ahead of the 2025 session. But after delays in the process of finding a contractor to work on the project, the state has said the study likely won’t be finished.

Lawmakers still hope to have enough information to work on legislation in 2025. But zoning bills are politically difficult, and the bill may have an especially tough path forward, as Republicans, some suburban Democrats and the executive branch have opposed it.

But in a June 3, 2023, email Santoro expressed reservations with the study. Aaron Turner, DOH’s director of government affairs and communications, explained that the latest bill has a “needs assessment with methodology on how to determine the numbers but with no goals or timeline attached.”

“Thanks for the update, but they are going to now do it in pieces…this lays the ground work for language in the implementer, or for further language next year…because the argument will be, ‘now that we know what each communities fair share need is now, we need to hold them accountable to address that need,’” Santoro replied on June 5, 2023.

Kavros DeGraw said she thinks the study will help lawmakers have as much information as possible as they debate solutions.

“I think that seeing the results of the study will give us a sense of where we are,” she said. “If that helps guide future discussions, I don’t see how that’s a bad thing.”

Santoro also emailed other DOH officials May 31, 2023 with specific objections to the methodology of fair share and concerns about the financial feasibility of building certain types of affordable developments in rural and urban communities alike.

Boggs said she thinks the message demonstrates a misunderstanding of the details of fair share.

Rojas said part of the problem may be that DOH views itself as an agency that administers housing funds rather than one that plans for the housing needs of Connecticut more broadly. He and other lawmakers said that, ultimately, the status quo isn’t working.

“I would ask DOH and the public to consider the alternative to ‘Fair Share’ and it’s what we have today — a world where tens of thousands of CT families want a better life and can see one so close to where they live. And yet as they approach it to access it, it cruelly disappears like a mirage,” Luxenberg said.

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