Monday, August 2, 2010

Affordable Housing and 8-30G

As an intern for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, I've been asked to comment on section 8-30G of the Connecticut General Statues, commonly known as the Affordable Housing Appeals Procedure. Section 8-30G, enacted in 1989, was a boon to advocates for more fair and affordable housing in the state, but has also been highly controversial. This section of the statutes applies to cases where a developer proposes building affordable housing in any town where less than 10% of existing housing can be described as affordable (meaning a household earning less than 60-80% of the state or area's median income must spend no more than 30% of its income on total housing costs). If a town zoning or planning commission rejects a developer's application to build affordable housing in a residential area, the developer can then appeal the town's decision and the burden of proof would be on the town to prove that rejecting the development was, "necessary to protect substantial public interests in health, safety, or other matters…such public interests clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing; and…such public interests cannot be protected by reasonable changes to the affordable housing development". The gist of the law is that for the developer's proposal to be rejected, the town zoning or planning commission must make a convincing case that such a proposal would clearly be against public interests or somehow endanger the health or safety of the community. Since for the vast majority of towns in Connecticut less than 10% of housing can be classified as affordable, this revision to the statues sent waves throughout the state and has led to the creation of hundreds, if not thousands, of affordable housing units statewide- either through the appeals process or merely because of towns recognizing the difficulty of opposing such developments.

Naturally, section 8-30G has provoked a good deal of opposition from affected towns. There are people that oppose affordable housing for bigoted or ignorant reasons, and enacting a law that favors the creation of affordable housing won’t change those attitudes overnight. Some people bristle at the thought of having local control over town planning compromised by often self-interested developers, and others express frustration and disappointment that the state government, in trying to further affordable housing, would resort to measures which effectively punish towns rather than incentivize- use of the “stick” and not the “carrot”.

But there are also those that want to repeal or revise section 8-30G for perfectly legitimate and principled reasons- namely, that it serves to work against Connecticut “smart growth” efforts. Although developers must site their affordable housing units in residential zones, the exact location of those units can be anywhere, such as on the peripheries of the town or away from population centers. For a town interested in becoming more compact and sustainable, this law can be frustrating, indeed. But other towns may be more interested in restricting any influx of people, or specifically, a certain type of people. As such, instead of restricting their residential zones or revising their zoning regulations to more precisely define their plain for sustainable growth, they insert language into their town statutes which gives overwhelming priority to town residents in applying for affordable housing, effectively barring low-income out-of-towners from residing there. The undertones to this kind of behavior can be clear: urban poor are not welcome in the suburbs. But of course, other towns may very well be interested in providing affordable housing, as long as it fits the context of the town’s broader plan for sustainable growth and doesn’t lead to further sprawl. Considering how vehement opposition to the law can be, it can be difficult to know exactly what the underlying feelings are. Fighting 8-30G tooth-and-nail without suggesting feasible alternatives and demonstrating their successful implementation is not the best way to show one’s intentions.

Some advocates for affordable housing take the view that the smart growth movement in Connecticut is by its very nature elitist and discriminatory, interpreting it as motivated merely by a desire to restrict population growth to the cities, discouraging low-income and non-white Connecticut residents from ever moving outside the cities and achieving the same economic opportunity and quality- of-life that more affluent residents enjoy. I think this view is unfair. I know that the true adherents to a smart growth philosophy believe that an inclusionary and sustainable society are one and the same. And I think the conflict between smart growth and affordable housing is artificial and pointless, and a distraction from the real issues. What I’m hoping for now is greater communication between both sides and sensitivity towards the other’s concerns. The circumstances of an economically and racially segregated state must be considered alongside the need for a radically different approach to population growth and economic development, and I see no reason why both can’t be done.

-Owen Deutsch