The Connecticut state legislature is currently considering two pieces of legislation to reform its zoning laws and add the so-called “mansion tax” to its revenue stream. These proposals seek to address housing inequities in a state that houses the most unequal area in the country. These legislative efforts are following a year of activism that brought societal inequities to the forefront of public discourse. In the past two months, these bills have garnered both support and opposition throughout the state in the form of social media posts, testimonies at public hearings and letters to the editors of major newspapers. Even though the groups supporting zoning reform and the mansion tax have correctly pointed out the urgency of Connecticut’s housing affordability crisis, their proposals are not grounded in the needs of local communities. On the contrary, these proposals seek to consolidate control over zoning laws at the state level and add yet another tax to Connecticut’s struggling middle class. Thus, these bills are not a sustainable or fair solution to Connecticut’s housing affordability crisis and will only perpetuate a system of governance that is not grounded on the specific needs of each community.
The zoning reform bills seek to address housing policies such as single-family zoning and not-in-my-backyard or NIMBY attitudes that keep affordable housing out of upscale suburban communities such as Greenwich or Westport. This is a worthy endeavor since there is a lack of affordable housing in Fairfield County and other areas of Connecticut. In fact, a sizable portion of Connecticut residents spend over a third of their income on housing. Moreover, providing diverse housing options in suburban areas gives all residents more choice and affordability while reducing segregation by income. Connecticut lawmakers and advocates have also pitched the zoning reform bills as a way to keep college graduates in the state. The most notorious bill in this plethora of legislation is Senate Bill 1024, which would require towns to build mixed housing units around train stations. Supporters of this proposal see it as a tangible way of creating access to suburban communities while the opposition sees it as an effort to take away control of zoning laws from towns. Even though there is a lot of division on this issue, it is possible to create more housing options in suburban towns without transferring control of zoning laws to the state.
Indeed, many communities in Fairfield County have been able to address the housing affordability crisis at the local level. For example, Stamford requires that large developments set at least 10% of their units at a below-market rate and the city recently created a new affordable housing trust fund worth $3 million. In Greenwich, the municipal government has spent $25 million on affordable housing in the past five years. Other Fairfield County communities have taken steps to build more affordable housing units as well. There is an organic movement across the state to create more housing options in communities such as Stamford already exceeding the requirements being proposed under Senate Bill 1024. Instead of taking away control of zoning laws from local communities, the state government should be supporting their successful efforts and incentivizing their replication in other communities. Transferring control of the affordability crisis to Hartford does not guarantee a solution but having the type of community support that affordable housing projects do in communities like Stamford will not only ensure their long-term success but also a welcoming environment for new residents.
The wrongly named and ill-advised “mansion tax” or Senate Bill 171 would be even more detrimental than the zoning reform bills. The bill proposes to place a statewide tax on commercial and residential properties worth more than $430,000. Lawmakers such as State Senator Martin Looney have named this proposal the “mansion tax” even though in towns like Stamford or Norwalk (where the median price of a home is well over $500,000) the homes of middle class families can hardly be considered mansions. Thus, the mansion tax is actually a tax on the middle class and it shows that a “one size fits all” approach will disproportionately create more costs to families in areas like Fairfield County, where the cost of living and the values of homes have increased as a result of the housing boom caused by the pandemic. Their incomes or job prospects did not increase along with their home values, so adding another fee to their property bills would be burdensome.
The groups pushing for zoning reform and the mansion tax know all too well that Connecticut residents already face some of the highest housing costs in the country coupled with other expenses and an ongoing economic recession. Thus, the push for more affordable housing must be sympathetic to the reality of all Connecticut residents, including residents who currently struggle to afford an apartment or a home. There are clear negative effects in taking away local control of zoning laws where they have been successful. While the mansion tax might raise some money to build affordable housing, it will also place another burden on Connecticut’s middle class. Therefore, the current zoning reform and mansion tax bills are not a sustainable or fair solution to Connecticut’s housing affordability. Lawmakers must consider other proposals that do not infringe upon local zoning laws and that do not place more taxes on the middle class. Otherwise, Connecticut might face an even greater affordability crisis at a time when the pandemic has already exacerbated housing inequities.