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May 1, 2024

Updated: Senate approves bill that would make it easier to convert commercial buildings to apartments

COSTAR Downtown Hartford skyline.

The state Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would make it easier for a developer or landlord to repurpose commercial buildings into residential properties, a proposal supporters say will help increase housing production in Connecticut, while detractors argue it will take away local control over zoning.

What’s in the bill:

Senate Bill 416 is one of the first bills that would mandate changes to the way municipalities regulate land use to pass through either chamber this session, according to the CT Mirror. 

The bill passed Wednesday evening largely along party lines, with two Democrats not voting. Lawmakers debated the bill for about six hours, the Mirror reported.

The bill allows the conversion or partial conversion of any commercial building into a residential development as-of-right, meaning that a municipality must approve such a proposal if it complies with normal zoning regulations.

As-of-right means a town or city cannot require a public hearing, special permit or any other discretionary zoning action other than considering normal zoning regulations. However, converted buildings still aren’t exempt from any applicable building, fire safety or fire prevention codes.

What’s at stake:

Partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic and general shifting of workplace conditions across the country, many commercial properties in Connecticut sit vacant or underutilized as more employers allow for hybrid and remote work, reducing the need for office space.

With housing supply a constant concern in the state, converting these properties to residential developments has been seen as an increasingly popular option.

However, many new housing projects in Connecticut, especially ones located in the suburbs and near single-family communities, have received pushback from nearby neighbors. Planning and zoning commissions have blocked some developments in the face of that opposition. 

State lawmakers have considered a number of proposals this year to encourage new apartment development, including one that would provide incentives for office-to-apartment conversions

Senate Bill 416 doesn’t offer any type of financial incentives for such conversions.

Who’s for it:

Home Builders and Remodelers Association of CT CEO Jim Perras testified earlier this year that the trade group believes the bill is a “progressive step towards addressing Connecticut's housing shortage.”

“By removing unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles, this legislation empowers property owners to repurpose commercial spaces efficiently, meeting the growing demand for residential units,” Perras said. “Crucially, the prohibition on municipalities conditioning approval based on nonconforming elements eliminates a major barrier to conversion projects. This creates a favorable environment for property owners, encouraging them to invest in repurposing underutilized commercial buildings without the burden of addressing unrelated issues.”

Who’s against it:

Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Advocacy Manager Zachary McKeown said that zoning and permitting processes should be left up to towns and cities.

“There are very different types (of) commercial buildings that may not be suitable conversion or appropriate within the area,” he said. “For example, a mall is a far different development than a small corner office building. The bill does not take into account a variety of factors including surrounding areas, consideration of housing type, density, or even the possibility of conversion to name a few.”

What’s next:

Following the Senate's approval, the bill now goes to the state House of Representatives for consideration.

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