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June 5, 2023

Stripped-down CT housing bill gains narrow passage in House

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG House Majority Leader Jason Rojas on the phone with the House GOP leader, Vincent Candelora.

An omnibus bill that would enact tenant protections and offer support for workforce housing squeaked by in the House of Representatives early Saturday morning with a contentious zoning reform proposal shifted from a mandate to what is essentially a study.

The House Democrats’ housing omnibus bill, pushed by Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, had its zoning reform measures scrapped Friday after weeks of negotiations to try to implement a statewide plan known as “fair share.”

A “fair share” policy would have had the state assess the regional need for affordable housing and divide that need between towns. Municipalities would then have to plan and zone for a set number of units. Experts say restrictive local zoning has created much of Connecticut’s housing crisis.

The state lacks about 89,000 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest income renters. Thousands of tenants in Connecticut pay more than a third of their income to housing costs.

Instead of adding the mandates, the new housing omnibus bill would still have the state assess the need for more affordable housing and determine what each towns’ share would be. But Housing Committee Co-Chair Rep. Geoff Luxenberg, D-Manchester, said Saturday that it would be used for “informational purposes” and is “aspirational goal-setting.”

“I think there is a tremendous benefit to citizens of this state to have an understanding of how many affordable housing units we need across the state of Connecticut as well as for each municipality,” Luxenberg said.

“Fair share” opponents say they fear this is the first step toward implementing a policy they view as unworkable. They say such zoning reform would weaken local control and impose one-size-fits-all solutions on towns.

“There will be something done with those numbers. That’s the clear answer,” said Housing Committee ranking member Rep. Tony Scott, R-Monroe.

Although House leadership said Friday morning that their signature housing bill is unlikely to meaningfully increase affordable housing in the state, it does contain several important measures to improve tenants’ rights in Connecticut. 

The omnibus bill, originally under House Bill 6781, combines ideas from several bills that went through the Housing Committee this session. Measures included in earlier drafts of House Bill 6781 were instead tacked onto Senate Bill 998, which was originally written to offer tax abatements for certain conservation easements.

The amended bill passed the House with 78 yes votes, just four more than it needed to pass. Several Democrats were among those who voted against the bill. It next heads back to the Senate for approval after the amendment.

Tenant protections

Although the zoning reforms that would have led to more immediate land use changes were stripped from the bill Friday, it contains several measures related to tenant protections.

Tenant rights have become a focal point nationwide and in Connecticut recently, particularly as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted pre-existing problems with evictions and housing quality that tenants face.

Connecticut has also seen a growing number of tenants’ unions started over the past couple of years. Many of those members testified during public hearings about their living conditions, rising rents and the effects of evictions.

S.B. 998 would allow municipalities to increase maximum fines for code violations from $250 to $2,000. It also requires that landlords give tenants a walkthrough of apartments before they sign the lease and limits what they can charge for tenant screening reports to $50.

Tenants would have to get a copy of the screening report. It would limit late charges if residents don’t pay their rent on time.

It would also have the Department of Housing develop a standard lease agreement. The Judicial Department would also be mandated to remove any eviction filings in cases in which the eviction is withdrawn, the tenant wins their case or the case is dismissed. The records would have to be removed within 30 days of the action.

Eviction filings have been shown to make it near-impossible for tenants to get new housing, even if the final ruling in the case is in the tenant’s favor or the case is dismissed.

The bill also offers support such as tax credits for developing workforce housing, a term that the governor and others this session have used frequently in the last few months. The goal is to offer housing so that more employees are able to live in the state, which the governor has said would be an economic benefit to Connecticut.

Fair share

The portions of the bill that deal with “fair share” don’t explicitly mandate a study. But they do ask that the state Office of Policy and Management work with other state agencies to determine a methodology to figure out how many units of affordable housing constitute each town’s fair share without mandating that towns actually plan and zone for that number of units.

Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance, said in an interview Friday that it can take years for big policies to get passed in Connecticut and that her group was celebrating the progress made this session.

Open Communities Alliance was one of the organizing groups that pushed for “fair share.” “This is a major piece of legislation for the state, and it runs contrary to the way so many people think zoning is supposed to operate in the state,” Boggs said.

“I find it really horrifying that the legislature was not able to get something done in the midst of a true housing crisis,” she added of Friday’s announcement that the zoning reform wouldn’t be in the bill.

“Fair share” was brought up last session, but died during the committee process. This session, another zoning proposal that would push for increased residential density near train and bus stations is still on the table.

CT 169 Strong, a group that opposed “fair share” and the transit bill, issued a statement asking senators to vote no on Senate Bill 998 and criticizing the proposal.

“These goals are a first step to a long and painful path of embarrassing towns for their perceived inability to meet what will surely be arbitrary affordable housing objectives,” the group’s statement read in part. “The bill was brought forward very late on Friday night and voted on in the very early hours of Saturday with some members complaining they were ‘hoodwinked.’”

The group believes that the way forward is by engaging more with local leaders and pushing for more funding such as state bonding and tax credits for housing. Gov. Ned Lamont has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars for housing programs in the bonding package for the next two years.

Republicans criticized the process during debate early Saturday morning, although Democrats pointed to public hearings and committee discussions on the concepts included in the bill.

Large bills that fold in concepts from several bills are fairly routine in Connecticut’s state legislature. Several on topics including education, care for the aging and housing have been introduced this session.

Boggs said her group is continuing its work and regrouping on “fair share.”

She said that while she’s disappointed it was not approved, she thinks many lawmakers and the general public learned more about “fair share” this session. 

“We’re on a trajectory that I think is very, very good,” she said.

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