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Connecticut Revisits Affordability and Diversity in Housing

Lawmakers heard public testimony on housing this week: some encouraging suburbs to site more-affordable units and others claiming that towns should be left alone to maintain local character. The state is one of the nation’s most-segregated.

(TNS) — The campaign over Connecticut's need for affordable housing and the power of mostly white suburban enclaves in one of the country's most-segregated states was renewed in the General Assembly on Tuesday, when lawmakers heard public testimony on a variety of bills, including legislation that would allow housing authorities to purchase properties in adjacent towns.

During an afternoon-long virtual hearing of the legislative Housing Committee, property owners and managers said that state regulations are hurting them and costing them money, while tenants warned that they are becoming victims at a time when landlords can force out those who pay lower rents because the owners can bring in new tenants who'll pay sharply higher amounts.

And in reviving last year's battle over persuading suburbs to site more-affordable dwellings, Alexis Harrison of Fairfield, who won election last year to the Fairfield Town Plan and Zoning Commission, warned lawmakers to leave alone towns that want to maintain their local character.

"Our zoning commission has been very committed to creating affordable housing and has consistently worked to encourage more diversity of housing stock," said Harrison, who as a member of the group CT169 Strong successfully defeated legislative attempts last year to force towns to build more-dense, affordable housing units.

"Basically, we want to avoid using a blunt instrument in order to achieve a laudable goal," Harrison said. "Helping seniors, the disadvantaged and the disabled state residents is a very good thing. But unduly burdening landlords could result in decreased rental stock, which would diminish the goal: providing a diverse housing stock to all."

Harrison spoke against legislation that would force towns of more than 14,000 residents to create fair rent commissions. "Generally rent control in cities has not been successful at providing lower rents to the broader community," Harrison said during the virtual hearing.

On the expansion of housing authorities to develop affordable dwellings outside their local boundaries, Harrison said "This would further erode the local control of each zoning commission in making permanent decisions in the best interests of individual towns. It would end up both regionalizing and politicizing what is inherently a local job, making permanent decisions in governing the land use within each municipality."

But Karen Dubois-Walton, president of the Elm City Communities/The Housing Authority of New Haven, said that allowing agencies like hers to purchase and develop affordable properties in neighboring towns would be an important way to allow more people to live in high-quality, affordable and market-rate dwellings.

"Housing authorities, as originally contemplated, were not in the business of development, and the laws on the books, currently, in Connecticut reflect the original housing authorities, not necessarily the housing authorities of today," Dubois-Walton said. "Out of necessity, we have moved away from your old-style public housing into becoming much-more developers of mixed-income, mixed-finance type of communities."

She said current laws limit housing authorities to work only within the borders of their municipalities. "At the same time, we all know, and this committee has been really great at looking at the issues of the lack of affordable housing in our community and trying to find pathways to expand that," she said. "I believe this bill is a no-nonsense, easy opportunity to add another tool to our box about how we can create affordable housing."

Kathy Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, a non-profit agency that offers representation to low-income adults with serious mental health conditions, said in submitted testimony that while state law allows for towns and cities to create fair rent commissions, only 25 municipalities have them.

"We have observed significant rent increases that has made finding new housing extraordinarily difficult for tenants who need to relocate, even tenants who are fortunate enough to have a rental subsidy; many landlords are asking for rents above the fair market rents set by HUD or the Department of Housing," Flaherty wrote. "Increasing the number of fair rent commissions around the state would enable more tenants in more towns to have a way to challenge unfair rent increases."

The committee deadline is March 17.

State Sen. Rick Lopes, D- New Britain, co-chairman, said the goal this session is to assure housing stability.

"A person's ability to work, go to school, or provide for their loved ones is all at risk if they are facing the possibility of losing their home or are unable to find long-term housing," Lopes said in a statement before the hearing. "We have a chance to take a bold step forward in addressing housing loss and homelessness, which impacts cities and towns across Connecticut. Even more, we can affirm that every person should be afforded the security and stability that comes from having a home."

State Sen. Saud Anwar, D- South Windsor, vice chairman of the committee, said combating homelessness in particular is a laudable goal for the panel. "I have championed this cause for years because I know it will have a transformative effect on how we experience and consider housing in Connecticut and beyond," Anwar, a physician, said in a joint statement with Lopes. "Homelessness is not a personal issue but a societal one, and we must respond to it the same way we respond to other crises, with a targeted and thorough response."

(c)2022 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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