New Haven-backed state bills that would allow public housing authorities to develop properties in neighboring towns and that would require an assessment of the statewide need for affordable housing have advanced out of committee.
A third City Hall-endorsed housing reform bill — designed to promote transit-oriented development across Connecticut — is still in committee, with a potential public hearing coming soon.
Kevin Alvarez offered those state legislative updates Wednesday night during the latest regular monthly meeting of the city’s Affordable Housing Commission. The virtual meeting took place online via Zoom.
Alvarez is the city’s director of state and federal legislative affairs.
That means he’s the Elicker Administration’s point person for tracking, advocating for, understanding, and explaining laws in the works at the state and federal levels.
During Wednesday night’s presentation, Alvarez gave the local commissioners a rundown on which housing-related bills are at the top of City Hall’s priority list during the Connecticut General Assembly’s current short legislative session, which is scheduled to adjourn on May 4.
He also discussed where those bills are in the legislative process, and why the Elicker Administration is backing each.
Those three bills include:
• Raised House Bill No. 5209: An Act Concerning Housing Authority Jurisdiction. A “joint favorable substitute” (JFS) version of this bill made it out of the Housing Committee on March 15 in a 11 – 4 vote. It now advances to the full state House of Representatives for a potential debate and final vote.
If passed, the bill would grant public housing authorities permission to develop properties in neighboring municipalities as part of an “expanded area of operation.” Current state law limits housing authority jurisdiction to their own town or city of origin. A similar bill made it out of committee last session, but then was never taken up for a final debate and vote.
• Raised House Bill No. 5205: An Act Concerning A Needs Assessment And Fair Share Plans For Municipalities To Increase Affordable Housing. State legislators on the Housing Committee gave this proposed bill a 10 – 5 vote of support on March 15, thereby moving it out of committee and teeing it up for a potential full House debate and vote.
If passed, the bill would require that, by July 1, 2024, the heads of the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) and the state Department of Housing (DOH) shall establish “a methodology for (A) determining the minimum need for affordable housing units in each planning region; and (B) fairly allocating such need to the municipalities in each planning region to ensure adequate housing choice,” to quote the language of the bill itself. The bill would also require the state to establish by July 1, 2024 “a process by which municipalities shall be required to develop, adopt, and submit to the secretary and the commissioner municipal fair share plans setting forth the actions the municipality will take to achieve its municipal fair share goal.”
• Raised House Bill No. 5429: An Act Concerning Transit-Oriented Development. That bill would update zoning codes across the state to permit as of right housing developments with a minimum density of 15 dwelling units per acre in areas located located within a half-mile radius of “any passenger rail or commuter rail station or any bus rapid transit station.”
The proposed bill would allow municipalities that have multiple such public transit stations to “calculate overall average allowable gross density across all such stations,” essentially allowing them to spread that minimum-required housing density to different fixed-transit-adjacent parts of town.
It would also require that any such transit-oriented developments (TOD) with six or more dwelling units must set aside at least 10 percent of those dwelling units at affordable rental rates, as defined by state law 8 – 30g.
Alvarez said that the state legislature’s Planning and Development Committee is slated to take this proposed bill up for a public hearing during the committee’s next meeting at 10 a.m. on Friday. (As of Thursday afternoon, the committee’s Friday morning meeting agenda did not include the TOD bill.)
It is “generally understood by most state legislators that New Haven has housing as a standing goal of this administration’s” state legislative agenda, Alvarez said Wednesday night. These three bills are all designed to promote the creation of more affordable housing in more parts of the state, and — with the zoning reform bill in particular — encourage denser residential development within walking distances of the state’s transit hubs.
What kind of pushback has the TOD bill gotten so far? asked city Affordable Housing Commission consultant Shancia Jarrett.
“There is enormous opposition, from both Democrats and Republicans who are strongly opposed to this,” Alvarez said.
Their arguments tend to break out into two many threats. Some argue that local control — a municipality’s ability to create its own zoning code of itself — “is essentially sacred.” Others argue that “affordable housing or multifamily housing will have negative consequences on a whole range of things for their town.” Some of these arguments are made in good faith, he said. Some are clearly not.
Alvarez said that one of his goals when advocating for these bills at the state legislature or at meetings of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM) is to “fundamentally change the way that affordable housing is discussed in this state.” From a focus on how only certain morally upright people deserve housing, to a focus on how all people deserve a safe and affordable place to live — and that there are specific statewide policies that can help realize that goal.
He also praised statewide advocacy groups like DesegregateCT and the Open Communities Alliance (OCA) for doing just that.
Do you get any complaints about denser housing causing worse traffic? Jarrett asked.
Yes, Alvarez said. But that’s another place where the conversation needs to shift. “We have an appallingly bad public transportation compared to what the needs of our people are,” he said. “We need to pair up housing and public transit” in a way that the zoning-reform TOD bill suggests, so that it’s easier for people to walk to work — or to a train station or bus rapid transit stop, so that they can easily take public transit to where they need to go.
Affordable Housing Commissioner Elias Estabrook pointed out that that the commission has already submitted written testimony to the state legislature in support of these bills.
“At this stage in the process, how can we individually or as a commission be helpful in moving the bills forward?”
Alvarez encouraged the commissioners to speak out in support of the TOD zoning-reform bill if and when it has a committee public hearing. He urged them to reach out to individual state legislators and call on them to support all three of the housing bills in question.
And he called for a “greater demonstration of a real public will for laws like this” by, for example, holding press conferences or rallies or just talking openly and publicly about the importance of the policies included in these bills.
Commissioner Rebecca Corbett said that she has a running list of New Haveners whom she has interviewed about the challenges of renting and owning a home in the city. She promised to connect with Alvarez to share those names and encourage city residents to testify to state legislators in support of these bills.
At the end of the meeting, fellow Commissioner and local housing authority Executive Director Karen DuBois-Walton thanked Alvarez for his advocacy at the state capitol on behalf of these housing-reform bills. And she encouraged him to join the local commission for future meetings, pointing out that he is actually a member of the Affordable Housing Commission.
Alvarez said that he only learned this week that he is a member of the relatively new commission, and promised to be a regular at the commission’s future monthly meetings.
City Advocates Boost Housing Authority Expansion Bill
A look at the state Housing Committee’s report on the JFS version of the housing authority jurisdiction expansion bill, meanwhile, shows just how helpful New Haven advocates’ testimonies were in helping that amended bill get out of committee.
In the “Nature and Sources of Support” section of the report, the committee cites six New Haveners’ testimonies as helping to successfully boost the bill of committee. Those testimonies also successfully called for the originally raised bill to be amended.
That substitute language, according to the report, “removes the requirement for neighboring municipalities to agree ‘by proper resolution to the expansion of the area of operation”’ of a housing authority expanding into a neighboring municipality.”
The New Haveners cited favorably by the report include (to quote the report verbatim):
• Karen DuBois-Walton, President of Elm City Communities/Housing Authority of the City of New Haven. Support stems from my concern about the lack of affordable housing in our state and the continued segregation of our communities. Further, my support stems from my knowledge that allowing PHAs to develop as any other developer can is a reasonable and sensible step forward that can be taken this session. However, my support rests upon the understanding that needed language changes are needed to the bill currently submitted.
• Elias Estabrook, Commissioner on the City of New Haven’s Affordable Housing Commission. Support of an amendment to HB-5209 would allow public housing authorities (PHAs) to operate in high-opportunity areas within 20 miles of their municipality, without the permission of the legislative body of the town in which these PHAs intend to develop and operate. The bill as amended allows housing authorities to act as a developer like any other developer.
• Anika Singh Lemar, Clinical Professor of Law | Yale Law School. Supports this bill with amendments that ought to ensure that Housing Authorities can act just as other developers and funders can, without seeking approval of a neighboring town’s political body. They would remain subject to local zoning and other (eg inland wetlands) approvals but would need local political approval simply to act.
• Kevin Alvarez, Director of Legislative Affairs, City of New Haven. Supports this bill with the following amendments: As currently written in Section 2, parts b and c, this bill would expand the jurisdiction of a Housing Authority only in the cases of a municipality passing a resolution to affirm that expansion. This provision undermines the entire intention of the bill by reinforcing the central problem it seeks to address: the lines by which Housing Authorities operate are arbitrary, inefficient, and a poor way to allocate resources effectively.
• Will Viederman, Housing Policy Manager at Elm City Communities/the Housing Authority of New Haven. Supports this bill with the amendments that would not compound affordable housing into neighboring towns that have already had resource constraints or limited opportunity. Rather, by constraining any new areas of operation to high opportunity census tracts, the state can ensure that new affordable housing is placed where there is the most resource to integrate new residents.
• Eli Sabin Legislative affairs associate Connecticut Voices for Children. Supports this bill because enabling public housing authorities to build affordable housing and administer housing vouchers in areas with more resources will disrupt patterns of segregation and expand housing choice and opportunity for low-income families and children.