Fair Share: Worst Zoning Bill in Years Or Urgent Remedy for Broken Housing System?

Though Greenwich is known as an affluent town where people live in big houses with rolling lawns, many residents struggle to find affordable housing and pay their rents and mortgages.

Plus, housing costs soared during the pandemic when a wave of new residents from New York bought up the backlog of inventory.

While the affordable housing crisis extends across Connecticut, creating affordable housing in Greenwich has been a challenge due to lack of vacant land and the high cost of land.

Affordable housing is constructed by both the Housing Authority and the private sector. Without the ability to override local zoning provided in statute 8-30g, developers in Greenwich would primarily respond only to the demand for luxury housing.

Francis Pickering from WestCOG and Erin Boggs from Open Communities Alliance.
Rendering of proposed 8-30g at Benedict Court and Benedict Place. March 2022

The state’s affordable housing statute 8-30g dates back to 1989, but many in Greenwich didn’t know of it until developers recently started to take advantage of its incentives.

Currently eight active 8-30g applications are expected or pending at Greenwich Planning & Zoning, with some offering over 100 units.

Although 8-30g has been around for decades, Greenwich has just under 6% affordable housing toward the state goal for towns to have 10%.

House Bill 6633 “Fair Share”

This year, House Bill 6633, aka “Fair Share,” developed by Hartford-based Open Communities Alliance (OCA), addresses Connecticut’s shortage of affordable housing.

After a public hearing in March, the bill passed out of the Housing committee.

The bill has been called punitive by Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo.

Greenwich’s Tara Restieri, a member of CT 169Strong, called it a blank check to developers.

“Groups like the Regional Planning Association whose long list of donors are a ‘who’s who’ of developers, construction contractors and real-estate investment trusts, fund groups like OCA and DeSegregateCT,” Restieri wrote in a letter to the editor in February.

In a phone interview with GFP, Francis Pickering of Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG), described Fair Share as the worst bill he’d seen in 15 years.

“Unlike 8-30g where developers have local zoning waved and appeal application denials, Fair Share cuts out the private sector and sets up a state bureaucracy,” he said. “The state determines how much affordable housing is mandated in every municipality.”

“The state would create a detailed catalog of what type of housing is most needed in towns,” he said, adding that the state’s Office of Policy and Management, in conjunction with the Dept of Housing and the Dept of Community Development, would determine how much affordable housing is required in each planning region, right down to the number of bedrooms and whether they be for elderly or not, and allocate the “fair share” to the towns in each region.

Connecticut’s nine regional councils of government – “COGs” – would make up the regions in the Fair Share model.

Greenwich is part of WestCOG. The Fair Share for WestCOG and Metropolitan COG is 29,574 affordable units. (Page 37 of the Open Communities Alliance Fair Share Housing Model.)

According to OCA’s model (see Appendix A, Page 40), Greenwich must add 3,304 affordable units to its current inventory of 1,452.

Pickering’s critique of Fair Share begins with it not being market-driven.

He said construction would be required in towns where there is no demand. One small town in the state has not received a single zoning application in six years.

“Zoning’s not holding back development in towns like that one,” Pickering said. Under Fair Share, one town with only 710 housing units today, would have to create 142 affordable units.

“Fair Share wants to build 120,776 units statewide. That’s enough for 300,000 people in 10 years,” Pickering added. “Connecticut’s population statewide has been flatlining; there’s no reason to believe we need housing for 300,000 over next 10 years.”

Connecticut affordable housing has been concentrated in poor cities and towns. The Fair Share Bill says municipalities with 20% poverty rates are exempt from Fair Share – Bridgeport, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, New London, Waterbury and Windham – but Pickering noted that a number of communities that are far from affluent will be required to build a substantial number of units.

Stratford would have to add 1201 units even though it already has 15% affordable housing. Derby’s share would be 599.

“This really affects almost everybody in the state,” Pickering said.

Also reached by phone, Erin Boggs, Executive Director of Open Communities Alliance, the non profit based in Hartford that created the Fair Share model, pointed out that in the 30 years since 8-30g became law, Connecticut towns including Greenwich had fallen far short of its 10% affordability goal.

In Greenwich many households struggle to find and pay for housing. The Greenwich United Way‘s data shows 7% of the population at or below the federal poverty level and 21% struggling as “ALICE” (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) where families earn less than the basic cost of living for the area.

Boggs explained that with Fair Share, “We figure out how much housing is needed on a regional basis and allocate it out to towns based on 4 factors: median income in the town, the wealth as defined by the grand list, percentage of multi-family housing and percentage of poverty.”

Boggs noted Greenwich’s grand list, divided by its population, boils down to over $780,000 per person.

New Jersey Fair Share Model

While Pickering talked about unfunded infrastructure mandates leading to increases in property taxes, and building in towns where there is no demand, Boggs emphasized that Fair Share would drive the state’s economic growth by alleviating the shortage of affordable housing.

“We scoured the country to look at zoning reforms that are working and are the most effective,” she said, adding that the New Jersey model would address Connecticut’s affordable housing crisis and ensure there are genuine choices in where affordable housing is located.”

She said Fair Share would both contribute to the economy and work toward filling the estimated 100,000 currently vacant jobs in Connecticut.

Boggs explained that Fair Share concept was born in response to a situation in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey where a group of Black residents in the overwhelmingly white town were finding that their houses were being condemned as the town made an effort to upgrade housing without allowing new affordable housing to be built.

“The mayor at the time basically said,’ If you’re too poor to live in Mt Laurel, then, leave,” Boggs said, adding that the response was an effort to make sure people could stay in their community, be provided urgently needed affordable housing and ultimately boost the economy.

Pickering said New Jersey was far from a successful model.

“Their successes are that 70,000 units have been built, just shy of 50,000 built through court orders and 150,000 more being built through litigation or threats of litigation,” Pickering said. “It sets municipalities up to fail.”

Realistic Opportunity, Meaningful Enforcement and Technical Assistance from the State

Boggs explained that with Fair Share, “Each town is to adjust their zoning regulations so they create a realistic opportunity to meet their fair share number over – we recommend 15 years – and then there’s also assistance including technical assistance from the state.”

Under technical assistance, the language of the bill refers to briefings, trainings, webinars and such other guidance that the Secretary of the Office of Policy and Management deems necessary.

Boggs said Connecticut’s CGS Section 8-2, also known as the Zoning Enabling Act specifically requires municipal zoning to “promote housing choice and economic diversity in housing, including housing for both low-and moderate-income households” and to allow for multifamily housing.

“There isn’t really a clear enforcement process for towns to implement what’s stated in 8-2,” she said, adding that with Fair Share there would be “meaningful enforcement.”

As for enforcement, OCA’s Fair Share policy paper notes that while 8-30g does allow for enforcement, it is via developers.

“The one law we do have, CGS Sec. 8-30g, which can only be enforced by developers, is critically important, but was never intended to be the state’s only tool.” (OCA Fair Share policy implementation paper page 16).

Mr. Pickering said Fair Share would be expensive for towns, especially considering the costs to update and expand infrastructure including public water, sewer and schools, all paid for by property taxes.

“Look at the title and summary of the bill, it looks harmless. There’s nothing in the bill summary that alerts you to what it would actually do,” he said.

Pickering said he supported affordable housing but opposed the Fair Share bill. He said there were other bills with interesting concepts, that could be positive particularly with further language refinements.

But, he said, “If I were to introduce a bill that would produce $20 billion of new spending I’d probably put it on the first page.”

“This is a toxic proposal,” Pickering said. “We are running up against the limits of infrastructure and the environment. We’ve not adequately budgeted for infrastructure maintenance. We have rail bridges over 100 years old. And lead pipes in many communities and a lot of old infrastructure. Just to maintain it is going to be a huge financial challenge.”

“I’ve seen a number of estimates from people on the left and right,” Pickering said. “CT 169Strong’s estimate for construction is $1.5 billion over 10 years.”

“In some towns the private sector may step up, but the way we (towns in WestCOG) build affordable housing is through inclusionary zoning at 10% – for example 1 of 10 units is affordable – but in many towns in Connecticut profit margins are not enough to use inclusionary zoning. My belief is the lion’s share will have to be built at public expense,” Pickering said.

In Greenwich, where the population has held steady at about 62,000 for decades and the number of housing units is about 25,000, Pickering noted that Fair Share’s requirement of 3,304, if built via inclusionary zoning would result in 33,040 units, and the town would go from 25,000 to 54,000 units.

“And the town population would increase by about 50,000,” he warned.

“We’ve estimated the cost of building these units statewide: the 120,776 that Fair share calls for in 10 years, my estimates are that it would cost statewide (conservative estimate) $20.26 billion dollars. In nominal terms it would be larger than the income tax when it was implemented, in real terms the third largest tax hike since the late 1980s and would undo everything the General Assembly is proposing in terms of tax relief. All funded through local property taxes,” he continued. “Expect a minimum 20% hike….Connecticut has high property tax by national standards. This would make us number one. It’s regressive with respect to income: It hits lower and middle income people really hard. Housing costs in Connecticut – one of largest factors to cost is the property tax. This would build a lot of new housing for low income people whether or not there is demand, and fund it through a tax that hits lower and moderate income people the most. It’s a wholly inequitable solution.”

Further, Pickering questioned the term ‘realistic opportunity’ included in the bill. “The bill is written with this “realistic opportunity” term people don’t understand. Nobody is aware of what this will actually do,” he said.

While Boggs referred to meaningful enforcement, Pickering noted, “If a municipality does not develop a plan, they are subject to default zoning, which is 20 units per acre.”

“Towns will adopt Fair Share in order to avoid default zoning,” Pickering said.

Pickering said the bill provides extraordinary standing in court for stakeholders to sue a municipality, and compel them to come to agreements with developers at public expense.

Further, Pickering questioned Fair Share’s emphasis on new construction. He said that with over 100,000 households that are cost burdened – spending an un-sustainably high fraction of their income on housing whether they own or rent – constructing a new unit and expecting a family to relocate didn’t make sense.

“The best way for me to help with mortgage or rent is to help with mortgage or rent, not to ofer housing elsewhere in the state,” Pickering said.

Boggs disagreed. “There’s a way to do this that would allow the deed restriction of units in existing buildings so you wouldn’t necessarily be talking about all new construction,” she said.

Boggs doesn’t hear the alarm bells Pickering hears.

“It’s a bill,” she said adding that there could be amendments, and that the numbers today were merely “ballpark.”

While the white paper refers to a 10-year horizon, Boggs said the recommendation had changed to a 15-year timetable.

“We’re recommending, for example that what is brought to the floor includes an extension of the period of time of which the units can be created and a reduction with the bonus points,” she said.

“Greenwich could win ‘bonus points’ – the town could ask to be planned and zoned for 154 additional units a year over 15 years. That’s .6% growth annually,” she said.

“Every town would be asked to do their fair share, but would be awarded bonus points for certain types of much needed housing – in a way to allow their full fair share to be reduced by 30%,” she said.

Asked about costs to towns to upgrade infrastructure, Boggs said, “If there is not internal subsidizing and the town has to pay for it…the state has lots of money for other types of subsidies, and federal money. Maybe additional state money would be a welcome thing.”

Boggs said she’d visited Greenwich recently and that with some creativity, commercial buildings on Putnam Ave could be redeveloped with four story buildings with a commercial option on the first floor, and affordable residential above.

“There are a lot of towns in New Jersey that are similar to Greenwich, and it’s working there,” she added.

One thing under discussion is allocating some funding to make this stuff possible,” she said. “The other thing is having the zoning be changed. That will generate interest in itself. And with Fair Share targets, that creates an incentive for the community to come together.”

Finally, Boggs said it was misleading to circulate numbers based on inclusionary zoning because that was only one of the paths to creating affordable housing.

Another path is for housing authorities to develop affordable units using government subsidies. Another is to deed restrict units in existing buildings.

“This is doable,” she said. “It’s happening in New Jersey and there are pathways for Greenwich to do it in a way that is fantastic.”

She noted that towns like Greenwich had failed to create affordable houisng after 8-30g was enacted 30 years ago.

“I’m very supportive of 8-30g,” she said. “It’s the only thing that has achieved affordability in our state. What I’d love to have seen it do 30 years ago was for the towns get together to plan for affordability to get a moratorium so they wouldn’t get development that didn’t fit in their vision.”

As for property taxes increasing, Boggs said, “I don’t have a sense of whether they’d go up or not. I know there will be millions of dollars of additional income in Connecticut because of the building of these developments – our initial estimates based on a higher Fair Share number are that we’d see $47 billion in additional income for Connecticut residents, and $9.6 billion in additional state and local tax revenue.”

This is the third time the Fair Share has come up in the last three years. The bill is on the House calendar and has yet to come up for discussion and vote.