In many ways, it is a great time for multifamily housing development in Connecticut.  Pent-up demand, years of under-production due  to restrictive zoning, "dinosaurs" available for  conversion, demographic changes, low interest  rates, and an influx of new residents due to the  pandemic are among the factors that have built  interest in multi-family projects to a level I have  not seen in several years.

In my own practice alone, I am currently working on or have  recently obtained approvals for new apartment proposals in  Connecticut towns as diverse as Mansfield, Groton, Bloomfield,  Simsbury, Rocky Hill, Cromwell, Cheshire, New Haven, Monroe, Norwalk and Stamford. Many of the civil engineering firms  and other professionals with whom we work likewise report  going gangbusters on multi-family.

Some expected that the COVID-19 pandemic would drive demand so much toward single-family homes that interest in multifamily investment would dry up for a while. It didn't happen.  Instead, demand for both products has increased, and apartment  vacancy rates remain low, as Connecticut simply has not produced enough housing units and choices to keep up with demand  over the last three decades. Many if not most of our towns have  seen no new apartment creation since the late 1980's.

Maybe there is something else going on, as well. The national  conversation on race and equity that has occurred over the past  year has clearly impacted the housing dynamic in our state.

There now appears to be more acceptance of multi-family and  affordable housing than I have witnessed since I began working  as a lawyer in 1994. I have recently watched suburban zoning  commissions amend their regulations to promote affordable  housing development, voluntarily add an affordable component  to their multi-family chapter, and approve construction of largescale apartment communities with hundreds of units. Advocates  like Desegregate CT have argued forcefully that zoning reform is  a critical step toward achieving racial equity in our state. But old notions linger. There are still those Connecticut residents  and commissioners who assume that rental housing will harm  property values and their town's "character," generate crime,  gobble up municipal services and overburden the public school system, while contributing little in property  taxes - all of which has been disproven by data and actual experience. Attempts at statewide zoning reform  typically run headlong into the mantra of home rule  and other obstacles.

And so it was this legislative session. Riding the  strongest momentum in decades, several zoning reform bills were introduced, but considerable political  opposition to statewide zoning mandates was mounted. A bill  requiring all towns to create their "fair share" of affordable housing did not receive a vote. Only one made it through - HB 6107,  which has been signed into law as Public Act No. 21-29.

Among other things, HB 6107 permits accessory dwelling units  as of-right, caps parking requirements at one parking space for  studio/one bedroom units and two parking spaces for two or  more bedrooms, prohibits minimum floor areas greater than  the building code requires, substitutes physical standards for  "character" as a reason to deny an application, and requires zoning regulations to affirmatively further fair housing. It also limits  application fees for multi-family housing to the level of other  residential dwellings, but authorizes towns to require applicants  to pay for a zoning commission's review consultants.

A late change to the bill allows a town to opt out of the parking  limits and accessory dwelling unit provisions by a two-thirds  vote of its zoning commission and legislative body. Another  removed a mandate to allow multi-family housing by right near  transit stations. Undoubtedly these changes were political necessities to gain passage.

While the bill as adopted did not achieve everything that zoning  reform advocates wanted, as a total package it is an important  step forward in a state that historically has been very reluctant to  take any zoning power away from its towns. Perhaps the times  are a-changin' again. With an improving and reopening economy,  a nudge from the state, and strong demand for a variety of reasons, all signs at the start of the decade are that for multi-family  developers, the twenties will indeed roar.

Published in CT Builder Magazine Summer 2021 issue

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