Home equalizer or neighborhood destroyer? The municipalities have until 2023 to decide.

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STAMFORD – Single-family homes filled with middle-class homeowners are a repeatable image of American life almost everywhere. But in Connecticut, where the cost of living is 27.7% higher than the national average, that vision is beyond the means of more and more residents.

A bill passed by Governor Ned Lamont in June – backed by housing and town planning advocates in the region – offered a partial solution to rising housing costs.

Experts call them accessory housing units or ADUs, but they are also referred to as grandmother’s apartments or in-laws. These can be basement apartments, attic apartments or separate buildings such as a pool house. But whatever the name, “structures are secondary units to a primary residence on a property,” according to the regional plan’s nonprofit. ADUs have a private kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living space. In some cases, ADUs share a roof with the primary residence, such as with converted spaces like basements and attic apartments, but they are basically separate houses.

House Bill 6907, which underwent intense recoil and extensive revisions before reaching the governor’s office, legalizes statewide ADUs on existing single-family lots. The law also limits the number of parking spaces required by municipal zoning authorities for new construction.

But the law also provides an emergency exit for municipalities that do not want to comply.

With a two-thirds voice from the local zoning council, any community can bypass the new rules. Some housing organizations, such as the regional Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity initiative, unsuccessfully rallied to opt-outs.

Legalizing ADUs in Connecticut will create a constant source of new housing over time, which the group believes is essential for the state, according to a new RPA study. RPA models show that “with the new ADUs and conversions, Fairfield County could see 40,000 additional housing units over the next 20 years,” which he describes as an 11% increase from current housing stock, especially in areas with a strong existing public transport infrastructure.

Under more restrictive housing rules, the RPA estimates that Fairfield County would create approximately 16,000 new ADUs.

The changes may be more noticeable in communities like Stamford, which are relatively well served by public transport and have a critical mass of residents. According to the latest US census data, some 135,000 people live within the city limits.

“Of the 23 communities in Fairfield County, this is the one with the largest single-family home stock,” said study co-author Marcel Negret. “It has more than 22,000 single-family homes.

Coincidentally, Stamford banned secondary suites before House Bill 6907 became law.

Some housing advocates and researchers like RPA postulate that creating more housing stock lowers the price of housing as a whole. They also tout it as a mechanism to increase housing choice.

If the average single-family home in Fairfield County sells for $ 1 million according to Sotheby’s International Realty, advocates say, that effectively excludes most people from the housing market.

“The lack of housing diversity indicates the need for more housing that meets the needs of more people of different incomes, life stages and abilities, strategically targeted to support those who need it most.” , wrote RPA in his study. .

And the Biden administration agrees with this philosophy.

“The long-standing and large gap between supply and demand for affordable housing for renters and homeowners makes it harder for families to buy their first home and increases the cost of rent,” the White House said. in a fact sheet in September. . “Higher housing costs also crowd out other investments families can and should make to improve their lives, such as investments in education.”

On top of that, the federal administration called exclusionary housing rules, such as strict controls on ADU construction, “one of the most persistent factors in depressing the housing supply” before d ‘Calling on local zoning authorities to “tackle zoning policies that have historically blocked families from communities and continue to limit the supply of housing.

Not all land use experts are as enthusiastic about the massive expansion of UDAs as advocacy groups like RPA.

Ben Trachten, a New Haven-based land use attorney who regularly helps landowners navigate the ADU approval process, urges municipalities looking to revise their rules to proceed with caution.

“I like the idea of ​​secondary suites,” he said. “It just needs to be done in a thoughtful way.”

Trachten argues that New Haven is already creating accessory apartments through existing ordinances, and letting them appear in every single-family neighborhood “ignores the fabric of cities.”

“Some people want to live on a quarter acre lot and have a garden and be quiet and not have to struggle to park,” he said. “People pay extra for that. Otherwise, you end up with the city with nothing but multi-family housing, which will only push people out of the cities, people who are looking for some kind of urban experience- suburban to the limit. “

Instead of lowering house prices by creating more stock, Trachten favors the implementation of social programs that promote “high income skills”.

Even Negret cautions that DSUs can only be fully effective when combined with other policy interventions. He argues that the creation of 40,000 new homes is only possible with adequate “technical and financial assistance to owners”.

But lack of resources isn’t the only drawback involved. While House Bill 6907 makes ADUs legal, the opt-out provision presents a potential hurdle.

While communities do not outright ban ADUs, some advocates argue that regulatory barriers can prevent them from being of real utility.

“You see some suburban towns have allowed them, but they have allowed them subject to various restrictions that hamper their effectiveness,” Desegregate CT founder, lawyer and architect Sara Bronin told the Stamford Advocate. Many cities require special approvals for ADUs. Others require housing to be owner occupied.

Bronin, who Biden appointed to chair his Historic Preservation Advisory Board, added: “Some cities, for example, have a requirement that allows them to be built, but only if they are intended for the elderly. but only if they were for a family member. So this limits the type of people who might be able to live in a secondary apartment. “

Bronin cites California as a powerful example of what ADUs can fully accomplish. Between 2016 and 2019, the state saw its ADU permits multiply by 11 after adopting less restrictive regulations.

“If you look at the Connecticut real estate market, it is in some ways very similar to that of California,” she added. “The California housing market is highly regulated and has significant constraints on the number and types of homes that can be created.”

And in California, some cities have adopted the types of technical assistance programs advocated by the RPA study to further encourage ADUs. For example, an initiative of the city of Los Angeles “associates the elderly with owners who wish to provide them with stable housing by offering their secondary units for rent”. According to the city’s ADU acceleration program, landlords get in return benefits such as “qualified tenant referrals, tenant case management and stable rent payments.”

Based on the California ADU explosion, Bronin said the RPA’s estimate of how ADUs might change the housing landscape is “reasonable” if not “conservative.” The study is also “very optimistic” that homeowners will understand the benefits ADUs could bring to the community as a whole, Bronin said.

Whether Connecticut passes ADUs, limits their implementation, or outright bans them will play out over the next several years – every city in the state has until January 2023 to decide how it will respond to the new legislation. .

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