OP-ED | It’s Not Perfect, But Affordable Housing Appeals Act Works
It is effective, enduring, and revenue neutral. It has already helped thousands of Connecticut families and has the potential to help half a million more households currently spending too much for housing. Equally important, it positions the state for future economic growth and stability.
Yet the Affordable Housing Appeals Act unsympathetically referred to by its statutory designation (Section) “8-30g,” is derided by critics as an intrusion on the sovereignty of Connecticut’s municipalities.
Frankly, all of it.
Since it was enacted by the General Assembly in 1990 as a slight variation on an already successful Massachusetts statute, 8-30g has provided families with housing choices in dozens of municipalities that they wouldn’t have had a prayer of moving to.
The reason: 8-30g stipulates that, if less than 10 percent of a town’s housing stock is guaranteed by a deed restriction or government assistance to remain affordable for up to 40 years after it was built — in other words, if the town has too few choices for low- and moderate-income people to live in — a developer can override local zoning to build mixed-income housing. At least 30 percent of the new units must be affordable for people making less than 80 percent of the median income.
Thousands of families have benefitted. They want what all of us want: access to jobs, high-resource schools for their children, healthcare, childcare, fresh food, and other vital services.
Towns that have excluded those families — zoned for, or otherwise allowed, little affordable housing to be built — not surprisingly dislike the idea that a developer can buy a parcel and build such housing.
But the law provides them with very reasonable protections: the housing can’t be built if it threatens public health or safety; or towns can proactively allow for enough construction to reach the 10 percent threshold that permanently exempts them; or, alternatively, they can construct a smaller number of affordable homes and qualify for a 4-year moratorium from such developments.
So, yes, in 26 years, the law has worked. More than 5,000 affordable homes have been built, about twice that number of modest market-rate units have also been constructed, and towns such as Wilton, Ridgefield, Darien (twice), Berlin (twice), and Farmington have qualified for moratoria. A few others are close, while 31 exceed the 10 percent threshold.
And in the tiny handful of cases where developers have tried to crowbar a few units where they shouldn’t go, or tried to build more units than would be safe, the courts or local zoning boards have protected towns, their residents, and their neighborhoods.
Better still, while the Malloy administration has invested more toward ending homelessness and expanding affordable housing in the last five years than in the last 30, the General Assembly has worked across party lines to defend and preserve 8-30g as the envy of other states. The affordable units have generally needed no state subsidy. Developers can build enough market-rate units to provide sufficient profit to cover their costs in making at least 30 percent of the units affordable.
Yet many of us have only read the negative reporting: a supposedly predatory developer uses 8-30g to override local planning and zoning efforts and threaten a community’s character. What haven’t we heard? That:
• 8-30g has mobilized such towns as Simsbury, Newtown, New Canaan, and Brookfield to proactively zone for affordable housing, attracting private, for-profit development that needs no state subsidy.
• 8-30g was used in Essex to expand a senior housing development on a currently vacant and blighted parcel in the commercial center.
• 8-30g was used by a non-profit developer to bring online units for working families in Stonington.
“We have recognized that we need a diverse housing stock to keep and attract the people we need for a healthy town,” the South Windsor town manager told one of our state’s housing organizations. “Not everyone’s going to college, not everyone’s going to afford that large 4-bedroom home. So we have worked with developers and planned our zoning to create a wider range of homes at different affordability levels. The spirit, not just the letter, of the 8-30g statute has motivated us to be proactive, and I think our town, and our housing stock, is better for it.”
Perfection cannot be allowed to be the enemy of the good. Calls to rescind 8-30g or render it ineffective would be an injustice to a program that’s worked for over a quarter century.
8-30g has created thousands of housing choices for today’s working families, downsizing seniors, and rising Millennials. It’s done that at virtually no cost to the state. And it’s fostered economic growth in the process. That’s what I call a bargain.
Gary Winfield is a state Senator from New Haven and West Haven.