— Cate Hewitt, 3.6.2023
In a Zoom panel discussion on zoning bills Sunday night, WestCOG Executive Director Francis Pickering strongly opposed the controversial Fair Share bill, HB 6633, which is back for the third year in a row, and has been voted through to the House floor for discussion.
The bill would assess affordable housing needs statewide and allocate a “Fair Share” plan to every municipality based on a formula of the town’s grand list, average income, number of multifamily units and poverty level of the community.
“The bill will force municipalities to pay for construction of housing that developers will not build on their own. Fair Share does not provide new revenue, so these costs will come on the backs of local taxpayers. A vote for Fair Share is a vote to raise property taxes,” Pickering said, in a Feb. 27 letter to the Housing Committee.
He said WestCOG opposed the Fair Share bill in 2021, HB 6611, which died in committee, and again in 2022 when it returned as a study.
In Sunday’s discussion, Pickering said the bill would essentially turn over the future of housing development from developers to the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management.
“OPM, which is the government’s budget agency, in consultation with housing advocates, department, economic and community development, and a couple other parties, would determine how much need there is for affordable housing statewide,” he said.
OPM and its consulting groups would allocate the state’s housing needs to each of the planning regions, which correspond to a Council of Government, or COG. The needs within each COG would be sub-allocated to a municipality and then broken down into “how many units at exactly what price points, how many bedrooms, how old the tenants or residents are to be.”
“These people must be omniscient because they know exactly how many bedrooms, at what age level and what price point are needed in every municipality and essentially require municipalities to zone for that,” Pickering said.
He said a municipality that does not zone for the Fair Share Plan will be subject to default zoning.
“[This] would allow 20 housing units per acre anywhere that has public water and sewer – or that a developer could build public water and sewer to – regardless of whether the sewage treatment plants and public water wells have adequate capacity to add that,” he said.
If a municipality’s Fair Share plan was approved but the housing was not built, then the town would be liable to be sued by affordable housing advocates and affordable housing developers, Pickering said.
“This has happened in New Jersey and in fact, the Open Communities Alliance, which is promoting Fair Share, has pointed out that the result of these lawsuits with rental litigation in New Jersey has been nearly 50,000 units built at local taxpayer expense in New Jersey – and another 100,000 coming down the pike,” he said.
Pickering said that the Fair Share law would allow special interest groups to sue towns that were not complying.
“Fair Share says if a municipality is not building enough housing to meet the demand the state sees, even if the private sector has no interest in building that housing, we will create a pathway for certain interest groups to sue the municipalities to force that construction and in the process of potentially receive punitive damages and attorneys fees,” he said.
In an email to CT Examiner, Pickering said it was important to note that WestCOG is not opposed to housing affordability and that its 2023 legislative priorities include several proposals to improve housing affordability.
“We just believe that doing it through the property tax and special interest litigation is not the way to do it,” he wrote.
Pickering told the panel that the property tax is widely regarded as a highly regressive tax with respect to income.
“We have, depending, the second or third highest property tax bills in the country, just behind New Jersey. Our estimate is that this would actually increase our property bills to be neck and neck with New Jersey. Not a good place for Connecticut to be, given the impacts of the property tax on low and moderate income households and also its adverse impacts on businesses and job creation,” he said.
The law would have a dire effect on small towns, Pickering said, and he used Scotland, Connecticut, as an example. He said the town hadn’t had a building permit application in about six or seven years — not because their zoning was over restrictive – “in fact, it’s quite lenient,” he said – but because there wasn’t development pressure.
“The challenge is that Fair Share presumes that the only reason why affordable housing is not being built is that municipalities are blocking it, predominantly through zoning. It doesn’t consider that labor is expensive or unavailable, materials are expensive, building codes add cost, lending has gotten very expensive,” Pickering said.
He said there is not market demand in many places in the state where there is no local economy to speak of and that [Fair Share] presumes that it’s all the fault of municipalities.
“The trouble with this is that if one of those municipalities, say Scotland, doesn’t build housing, even market rate housing, because there’s no demand for it, the Open Communities Alliance or one of their peers could sue the town with attorneys fees and force construction of housing for which there’s essentially no demand.”
He said that Fair Share is intending to build 120,000 housing units, which works out to between $30 and $60 billion of spending over a 10-year period
“Assuming that 50 percent of that has to be subsidized — say the private sector can bear half of that –the other 50 percent would be on local taxpayers’ backs.”
He said that would work out, on average statewide, between a $1300 and $2600 annual property tax increase, depending on the municipality. Where the cost of development is higher, like in Fairfield County, it would probably be a higher tax increase – in the 20 to 25% range.
The infrastructure costs will fall upon the municipality while federal and state governments provide little assistance, he said.
“State funding programs right now, where they do exist, for instance, for sewers, are largely focused on addressing existing environmental problems – for instance, a beach or a lake that is polluted due to failing septic systems,” he said. “When they’re not addressing that they focus largely on the cities, distressed municipalities.”
He said the state has had a sewer avoidance policy since the late 1970s, so it is not willing to commit state funds to subsidizing “leapfrog development,” or development that is built on cheaper land further from an urban area.
“The state wants there to be infill development to use existing infrastructure. Some of our sewer systems are at capacity, some are not at capacity, especially in our cities,” he said. “Hartford used to have 60,000 more people than it has today.”
He said that unless the state changes all of state policies to fund infrastructure in locations where they have not in the past, it’ll be on the back of the municipalities.
Pickering said that in southwestern Connecticut, I-95 is far above capacity and none has been added since the highway was completed.
“This would bring in a lot more development, a lot more traffic. Even if 50 percent of the people took the train, it still will bring tens of thousands of new vehicles to I-95 every day without any solution at the state level,” he said. “The costs of widening 95 are absolutely astronomical and that’s why we haven’t done it yet. So we really are backed into a corner on this and the concern is that this bill would exacerbate our infrastructure challenges.”
Pickering said that there are proposed housing bills that would have positive effects.
He said that House Bill 6394 would help address the concern that state funding has largely been used to build affordable housing and infrastructure for it in the cities by allowing funding to be used in concert with locally approved projects in other locations.
“So, helping to revive our historic factories and mills, our station areas that are ripe for redevelopment, but often we can’t redevelop them because the housing is so dilapidated, and the factories are so contaminated,” he said.
He said another bill (HB 6412) would use the state’s conveyance tax to fund affordable housing.
“This is done in 12 states, unlike Fair Share, which only has been in one state, and it’s used in hundreds of jurisdictions nationwide, and it’s the number one way that affordable housing gets built,” he said. “And it’s a logical way to do it, the more expensive houses are and the more sales there are, the more money comes into the conveyance tax in proportion to the need.”
Pickering said there are good ideas for legislation out there. “If you see good ideas, please make sure also to tell your legislators, ‘I like this.’”
The panel discussion was hosted by Alexis Harrison, CT169Strong Co-founder and Fairfield TPZ Commissioner. Panel members included: Maria Weingarten, CT169Strong Co-Founder & New Canaan Board of Finance member; Kathryn Braun, Fairfield TPZ Commissioner & Land-Use attorney; Steven Mullins, former West Haven P&Z member; and state Sen. Jeff Gordon, R-Woodstock, who is chair of the Woodstock P&Z.
Cate Hewitt is a reporter and Associate Editor for CT Examiner. Hewitt covers planning and zoning firstname.lastname@example.org