State officials talk about efforts to change affordable housing law

Milford’s representatives to Hartford who attended a forum Sunday about the affordable housing law 8-30g talked about the kinds of changes they hope will take some pressure off cities like Milford that have been fielding numerous housing applications.

The Milford Preservation Trust hosted the discussion. While it was only a week before the election, trust President Michele Kramer said the trust organized the event not as a political debate but in response to phone calls she received this summer about old Milford homes marked for demolition.

Kramer, like others who spoke, said she doesn’t oppose affordable housing.

“The Milford Preservation Trust recognizes the importance and need for affordable housing,” she said. “We’re not interested in exclusionary housing.”

But she said the trust cares about preserving Milford’s older homes and worries about overly dense developments that threaten the city’s historic character.

The state’s affordable housing law, 8-30g, has been a talking point and a battling point for many years in a number of suburban towns, where the law allows developers to ignore local zoning regulations and build what they want as long as a certain percentage of the units are marketed as affordable and meet the state’s definition of affordable housing. Among other criteria, the housing must be for people who make 80% or 60% of the median income and be deed-restricted to qualify as affordable under the law.

Milford has seen a number of applications in recent years for affordable housing developments. Local officials here say Milford has gotten more applications than other communities, largely because of its attributes. During Sunday’s presentation, Mayor Ben Blake said Milford is “well sewered.” The city has a sewer system able to support large-scale housing. Not all communities have that, so Milford becomes attractive to developers with big projects in mind.

There are also the beach, the highways, the train station, and other amenities that people look for.

While the panelists Sunday agreed the law has good intentions, Blake and the others said it has backfired in places like Milford and Fairfield. “Places like Milford are disproportionately affected by this legislation,” Blake said.

The 8-30g legislation was born in the 1980s in response to the housing boom and efforts by some suburban communities to create exclusionary zoning regulations, said state Sen. Gayle Slossberg (D-14). Milford wasn’t one of those, she added.

She listed the housing in Milford that is in all practical terms affordable: Ryder Woods, which is a mobile home park that the city took the lead in creating, in-law apartments, and apartments throughout the city that rent at below-market rates.

But those units don’t count toward totals that the city needs to be exempt from the law or to qualify for a moratorium.

Slossberg said she tried to pass legislation that would allow those units to be counted, but in the battle between urban communities and suburban communities regarding the legislation, the urban votes outnumber those from communities like Milford, and attempts to change the law have failed, Slossberg said.

Larry Butler (D-72), state representative from Waterbury and chairman of the state’s Housing Committee, said he was one of those urban representatives who strongly disagreed with efforts to change the 8-30g law and he thought Milford and other communities were just expressing a “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) attitude.

But after coming to Milford at the invitation of state Rep. Kim Rose (D-118) and touring the city, he said, he changed his mind. Rose is vice chair of the Housing Committee, and she told Butler he needed to see the community to understand the issue.

“I had prejudged this town. I was wrong,” Butler said.

Butler acknowledged that Milford has a lot of affordable housing, but that it isn’t deed-restricted and therefore doesn’t count as “affordable” under the law.

He said changing 8-30g hinges on what can be passed in Hartford, and getting both sides to agree isn’t easy. He said the House supported a bill that would have given extra points to communities that had incentivized housing zones. That bill, however, did not make it to the Senate floor. Slossberg said she wouldn’t have supported it anyway because it would not have had any effect on Milford, as Milford doesn’t have an incentivized housing zone.

The 8-30g law is not a problem for all communities. In West Haven, 8-30g has no impact because West Haven has met its quota of affordable housing under the law, according to state Rep. Charles Ferraro (R-117).

The affordable housing law is a “noble cause” that aims to provide housing that “teachers, firefighters and service people” can afford, said state Rep. Pam Staneski (R-119). But she said developers take advantage of the law in order to build profitable housing.

Milford’s Planning and Zoning Board has voted down recent applications under the affordable housing law. But after their denial, if the developer appeals, the case goes before a land use judge and the city has the burden of proving that the development will hurt Milford. In all cases so far, the judge has overturned Milford’s denial.

Staneski said it might make sense to have a three-judge panel overseeing those cases rather than just one judge.

She also told the Milford Preservation Trust that 8-30g does not override regulations in a historic district, of which there are two in Milford. But historic homes outside the district are not protected, unless perhaps they are listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.