CT’s 26th Senate District candidates differ on affordable housing

Photo of J.D. Freda

WILTON — What will Connecticut’s 26th Senate District look like in five years and how will state statutes affect local housing plans?

State Senate candidates Ceci Maher, a Democrat, and Republican Toni Boucher may differ on their answers to that question, but both have taken aim at one constant they believe needs amending — Connecticut General Statute 8-30g.

Maher and Boucher — vying for the seat to represent Wilton, Westport, Weston, Redding and parts of Ridgefield, Darien, New Canaan and Stamford — said some aspects of the statute are outdated and need to be reviewed. They have a few ideas on how towns should approach housing.

The statute allows developers to circumvent local zoning laws in certain municipalities if at least 10 percent of its housing stock isn’t considered affordable. The municipality must prove the public health or safety risks outweighs the need for affordable housing, if denied.

What change are they pushing for?

Boucher said she isn’t advocating for the eradication of 8-30g, but said it needs to be reformed. She said she wants to make it easier for towns to obtain moratoriums to avoid limiting local officials in what they can do. She wants more diverse forms of low-income housing, such as accessory dwelling units, to be considered for part of a town’s plan.

Boucher said she does not want the state to decide what gets developed within a half-mile of train stations.

Maher wants to eliminate the 10 percent goal from the bill and shift the discussion from obtaining moratoriums to planning for sound affordable housing that will benefit residents.

She wants to create more density in Connecticut communities and make them more vibrant without losing their individuality.

“I think we can change the conversation from the state being a negative force and recognizing that we are all in this together,” Maher said.

Counting affordable and the threshold

Boucher, who has served on the state’s housing committee, said she believes 8-30g is hampering the ability for some communities to grow independent of state interference.

“I see its laudable intention, but yet its actual implementation might undo some of the advantages that these small communities have for attracting people,” Boucher said.

High-rise developments being built “en masse” in towns such as Trumbull, Boucher said, led to undesirable congestion and has left some local governments “at wit’s end.”

She also opposed the Fair Share Bill, or House Bill 5204, which would have taken a regional approach to affordable housing that Boucher said removed more control from towns. The bill didn’t make it out of the House.

Boucher said the formula for counting affordable housing stock should be developed more and incorporate other low-income housing and accessory dwelling units that could bump town numbers. She said this will help make it easier for towns to get moratoriums.

“They did make some adjustment to give you a moratorium for a number of years if you made huge changes in development, in other words, added more affordable housing stock,” Boucher said of 8-30g. “What’s alarming right now is that there’s no further reform of that bill. It’s gotten worse and more onerous.”

Maher disagrees with Boucher’s focus and wants to move the discussion of affordable housing forward without fixating on the 10 percent affordable housing number and moratoriums.

“It’s clear that the 10 percent number, which was set out as a goal, has become not a carrot, but a stick and it’s just not serving anyone well,” Maher said.

She wishes to work alongside towns in a state-municipal partnership, without that 10 percent number, and refrain from imposing restrictive rules on town housing authorities.

Maher said some towns likely will never reach 10 percent, and local officials are too focused on qualifying for moratoriums to temporarily restrict enforcement of 8-30g than building the needed housing.

“I know that when it was put into place 30 years ago, it was to create the direction of affordable housing with the understanding that, if affordable housing was created, the towns could get a moratorium,” Maher said. “Now, I believe this process is dysfunctional, in that the focus is more on the moratorium than it is on creating affordable housing.”

Maher said the end goal should be adding housing for seniors, empty-nesters and young professionals to be able to live in the communities of their choice.

“How do we course correct when the moratorium has become the end result rather than affordable housing?” Maher asked, saying the answer to that question is one of her main focuses.

What will more density look like?

Maher said she disagrees with some of the arguments made by Boucher and other Republicans, including that too much development can strain other town infrastructure.

“What I’m looking at, in terms of seniors and people coming back to our communities, we’re not looking at a burden on transportation and schools, we’re looking at having the people we want to be able to live in our communities able to live here,” Maher said.

Maher, a longtime Wilton resident who grew up in Stamford, said she has overseen the development of the district’s towns and cities. She said it’s unlikely towns like Wilton and Westport will become too much like cities.

“In all the years that I’ve lived in Fairfield County, I have never seen any of these towns turn into another town,” Maher said. “Stamford is distinct, so is Norwalk, and the concern that people have about towns becoming something other than what they are, I don’t see it.”

Boucher said she was worried an influx of higher density could lead to “regionalizing schools” and warned against the state attaining carte blanche to fully dictate what is developed within one-half mile of train stations.

She said she spoke to many families who moved here during the pandemic looking for open space. These newer residents weren’t looking for high-density areas when moving into the Connecticut suburbs, she said.

“It’s a real turn-off to a lot of the new people here and they’re very angry about it,” Boucher said. “They feel that they no longer have rights to their property that they bought, or around their property, and the towns themselves have their hands tied.”