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May 6, 2024

CT House passes ‘Work Live Ride’ bill; sends measure to Senate

GINNY MONK / CT MIRROR Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, and Planning and Development co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw watch votes come in on House Bill 5390 on Friday, May 3, in Hartford.

State representatives passed a bill Friday that encourages towns to allow more apartments near train and bus stations, marking a win for housing advocates who have pushed for similar proposals every year since 2021.

Friday night’s debate largely centered around whether the opt-in proposal used a “carrot” or a “stick” approach. Advocates and lawmakers have argued for years about whether it’s best to use incentives to encourage towns to build housing or to mandate that they allow denser development.

House Bill 5390, also known as Work, Live, Ride, would offer towns that opt to create transit-oriented districts priority for certain state infrastructure funds. The idea is to build denser, walkable communities with housing and businesses where people can easily access public transportation.

“The whole purpose is to again empower towns, especially the towns that need help with sort of the planning and setting up and developing of these TOD guidelines,” said Planning and Development Committee co-chair Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw, D-Avon.

The bill is backed by advocacy group Desegregate Connecticut, and Democrats said at the end of last session they wanted to prioritize the concept this year. The organization has advocated for some version of a transit-oriented development bill every year since 2021.

Advocates say that transit-oriented development would help address a dire lack of housing in the state and help the environment by encouraging people to use public transportation.

Housing experts and research has shown that much of the state’s lack of affordable housing is tied to restrictive local zoning policies. Historically, local governments have used zoning as a tool to make it harder for people with low incomes, particularly people of color, to live in certain neighborhoods.

H.B. 5390 is one of the more controversial bills to come through the Planning and Development Committee this session. Opponents fear that if towns don’t opt-in, they’ll be less likely to have access to certain state funds and say it could weaken local control.

“When I look at this bill today, I look at it as another step in the erosion of local control and the zoning rights of municipalities across the state,” said Planning and Development ranking member Rep. Joe Zullo, R-East Haven.

The bill passed the House with a vote of 89 to 62. A handful of Democrats voted alongside Republicans against the measure.

Transit-oriented development is a land use concept that’s grown in popularity across the country as states and localities try to find ways to reduce sprawl and increase housing supply. More people, particularly millennials and Gen Z, say they want to live in walkable communities. As millennials came of age, more moved to urban centers than older generations.

To qualify as a transit-oriented community and get priority to certain infrastructure funding, neighborhoods near public transit have to allow certain types of multi-family or affordable housing as-of-right, meaning without a special hearing through the local zoning board.

The bill includes allowances for an inland wetlands public hearing.

Some of the types of housing that would qualify a town as having a transit-oriented community include: smaller apartments with up to nine units, developments with 10 or more units if at least 30% of them are set aside as affordable or any developments built on government or nonprofit-owned land.

It also has measures to build set-aside affordable units if other developments that aren’t allowed as-of-right are proposed in the transit districts.

The bill specifies that towns that don’t establish the districts are still eligible for discretionary funds. Discretionary funds include certain state money from the Urban Act Grant Program, Main Street Investment Fund, and Incentive Housing Zone Program as well as any bonus programs created through the Office of Policy and Management.

OPM would oversee transit-oriented development under the bill.

Kavros DeGraw argued that because the bill is an opt-in for towns and they’d get to decide where to put transit-oriented communities, it does leave the power with towns. People can weigh in at public hearings on whether to create the districts, she said.

“As-of-right does not mean that you can just build whatever you want,” Kavros DeGraw said. “It does not mean that we will have skyscrapers located next to single-family homes.”

Developments would still be subject to city administrative processes and building and fire codes, she said.

Zullo said he fears towns will de-facto be deprioritized for funding. If some towns get priority, there might not be enough to go around to towns that don’t want to build transit-oriented communities, he said.

“There are no provisions in the bill to take any funding away from towns,” Kavros DeGraw said.

It’s fairly common for the state and federal government to set parameters to determine what localities get funding. Grants are often tied to compliance with certain governmental priorities.

Zullo said ahead of Friday’s debate that the difference was that Work, Live, Ride, is “a massive sea change in how zoning policy is going to be made.”

Gov. Ned Lamont has expressed support for transit-oriented development, saying it would serve as a boon for local businesses. Those near public transportation could see more foot traffic, he said, and employees would have an easier time getting to work.

The bill next heads to the Senate for approval.

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