This month marked the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, a federal act banning discriminatory housing practices, passed in the closing years of the American Civil Rights movement. The act protects tenants and prospective homeowners from being discriminated against based on their race, sex, religion or country of origin and was approved less than a week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968.

Maintaining fair housing practices remains a challenge at the national level and Connecticut reports some of the highest rates of racial segregation of any state. Connecticut’s Department of Housing is responsible for regulating and encouraging fair housing practices across the state, and Commissioner Evonne Klein, a former Darien First Selectman, spoke with The Darien Times about the department’s efforts.

Klein and Rep. Roland Lemar of New Haven are co-chairs of the Fair Housing Working Group, a bipartisan group of legislators, housing policy experts, fair housing advocates and developers formed in Sept. 2017. Klein said the group’s goal is to help remove systemic barriers to housing choice that have been in place for decades. In the five months since the group was established it has sent five proposals to the state’s general assembly aimed at improving accountability and enforcement for fair and affordable housing policy, promoting inclusionary zoning and supporting transit-oriented development.

“We’re very excited about the work and the willingness of folks with all different backgrounds to come together and be a part of drafting legislation,” Klein said. “The whole purpose of bringing a diverse group of people together is so that when issues and challenges are raised and then, as a group with diverse experience and backgrounds, we can resolve the issues.”

As a part of their recommendations, the Fair Housing Working Group proposed that the Department of Housing would be able to withhold discretionary funding to towns and cities that fail to comply with state housing regulations. Darien is currently in compliance with those regulations, despite falling short of the Department of Housing’s goal of 10 percent affordable housing stock. The town currently has less than five percent affordable housing but has earned a moratorium on state statute 8-30g by providing evidence that the town is working to improve its affordable housing stock.

“Local residents should know that Darien is in compliance,” Klein said. We don’t anticipate, should this pass, and should Darien apply for discretionary funding, that this would be a factor that would stand in the way of their receiving funding.”

Approximately two dozen Connecticut municipalities do not allow multifamily housing with three or more units under standard regulations or special permit, placing them in violation of the Zoning Enabling Act (8-2). Approximately 20 towns and cities meet statutory criteria as distressed municipalities, areas suffering from high rates of unemployment and poverty with an aging housing stock in need of redevelopment and new affordable options.

Included in the Fair Housing Working Group’s inclusionary zoning initiative is a recommendation that all new multifamily housing developments with 10 or more units designate at least 12% of those homes as affordable. In exchange developers would be able to exceed density limits by 20%, a trade-off that should ensure that multifamily projects remain financially viable. The inclusionary zoning proposal would also prevent developers from fulfilling their affordable housing requirements at a different location from their main project. Developments located within distressed municipalities and those with less than 10 units would be exempt from the inclusionary zoning regulation.

According to Klein, the state regulation can serve as a baseline for municipalities to set their own inclusionary zoning policies. Darien has its own local inclusionary zoning regulation allowing for up to 50 percent bonus density while requiring 25 percent of the project’s units to be affordable. As it stands, the town’s density bonus and requirements extend beyond the working group’s recommended requirements. However, the local regulation also gives the town’s Planning & Zoning Commission the option to enforce a fee-in-lieu of providing affordable units, or allow the developer to construct units in a different part of town, two options the Fair Housing Working Group opposes.

Ultimately the power to approve applications built under the inclusionary zoning regulation would still rest in local zoning commissions, and the Department of Housing has no intention of allowing projects to circumvent the local zoning process.

“It doesn’t force approval, the applicant would still go through the local planning and zoning process, that’s not taken away from any one municipality,” Klein said. “The merits of an application are decided based on a number of factors and there would be no reason for a local zoning board to not approve a development solely based on the fact that it included affordable housing.”

Klein said the inclusionary zoning proposals are intended to maintain parity between neighborhoods with affordable housing and those without. Allowing developers to isolate affordable housing away from newer market rate developments can create stigmas about certain areas of a town and eventually lead to segregation due to income disparity. Klein suggested that inclusionary zoning in new projects helps ensure that businesses will be successful because they will attract a workforce and incoming commercial developments will have an available workforce that can afford to live in the area.

“In light of the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act I’m proud of the work that Connecticut has done and continues to do to affirmatively further fair housing in the state,” Klein said. “We will continue our work, I would hope this discussion can serve as clarification for our town leaders and that they will support the work of the Fair Housing Working Group.”