New task force tackling Connecticut’s housing crisis, but ‘obstacles to overcome’
A new group is tackling one of Connecticut's most divisive issues – housing. But during its first meeting on Monday, old disagreements already bubbled up between developers and suburban towns.
CONNECTICUT’S HOUSING CRISIS
Trying to buy a home in Connecticut? It’s not easy.
“Very expensive right now,” said Ali Papageorge, of Trumbull.
Mara Skowronek, of Shelton, agreed.
“It's a struggle,” she said. “Even, like, condos, apartments.”
On Monday, a new Affordable Housing Roundtable met to try and find solutions. The 24-member group consists of lawmakers from both parties, representatives of larger cities and smaller towns, as well as realtors and developers. Under a new law, the group must issue a report to state lawmakers by January.
The Connecticut Association of Realtors said the state has a housing crisis. Before the pandemic, Connecticut had 22,000 homes for sale. Today, it's just 3,800.
“So, if you want to buy something, there's pretty much nothing to buy,” said CT Realtors’ CEO Cindy Butts. “And if you want to rent something, you don't really have a choice.”
State housing officials said the homes that are available are too big and expensive for younger buyers, especially outside of Connecticut’s larger cities.
“We just haven't built enough starter homes in the last 30 years,” said Nandini Natarajan, CEO of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority.
WHAT’S TO BLAME?
Experts on the panel blamed several factors, including a shortage of construction workers and supplies – plus high interest rates and tight purse strings from lenders. The new state budget aims to help, by devoting hundreds of millions of dollars to finance affordable housing projects.
But getting towns to actually allow those developments is a challenge. Developers said, even when they have financing lined up, restrictive local zoning rules get in the way.
“There may be high demand for housing in some towns in Connecticut, but there's no ability to build,” said Dave McCarthy, with Heritage Housing Inc. of Norwalk.
But many small towns warned against a “one-sized fits all” approach. Many argued they simply don't have the infrastructure for larger-scale development.
“A sewer line is going to cost us 7, 8 million dollars to bring up to that area,” said Rudy Marconi, Ridgefield’s longtime Republican first selectman.
The Connecticut Organization of Small Towns also raised environmental concerns, especially as many communities are building up resiliency projects in the face of global warming.
This year, state lawmakers backed off controversial "fair share" housing quotas for towns across the state. Instead of mandatory targets, the new law only makes them voluntary goals. Lawmakers also abandoned a “Work, Live, Ride” bill that would have tied infrastructure funding to higher density around train and bus hubs. Smaller communities said the proposal amounted to extortion.
“OUT OF THE BOX” SOLUTIONS
One idea? As more people work from home, empty office space could be converted. Although many states are looking at the idea, it comes with its own challenges.
“I think people have this notion that we can just convert a property to housing, but if it doesn't have sprinklers, if it doesn't have lots of other issues, it becomes a far larger obstacle to overcome,” said state Rep. Jason Rojas, the Democratic House Majority Leader.
Connecticut is also helping first-time home buyers. The wildly popular “Time to Own” program offers up to $50,000 in forgivable loans for down payments and closing costs. More than 1,300 buyers have already taken advantage of the program in its first year. It’s so popular that the State Bond Commission added another $20 million earlier this month.