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Breakthroughs: Successful Local Strategies for Affordable Housing

July 2008
Volume 7, Issue 4

Connecticut Enacts Legislation to Increase Housing Affordability

In the past two decades, Connecticut has applied significant energy and resources toward encouraging affordable housing development. However, despite having the highest per capita income in the country and a healthy growth in wages (33.7 percent from 2000 to 2007), the state has lost a large percentage of its 20–34 year-old population, due in part to high housing costs, which rose by 69.7 percent. This article will look at key legislation adopted by the state to increase its affordable housing supply.

Affordable Housing Appeals Procedure
and the Blue Ribbon Commission to Study Affordable Housing

Affordable multifamily housing in Cheshire, Connecticut

Concerned about the lack of affordable housing for low- and middle-income residents, the state enacted legislation in the 1980s to create a Blue Ribbon Commission to examine the need for, and to propose ways of increasing, housing affordability. Following recommendations provided by the Commission, the state enacted the Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Act in July 1990. The Act allows developers to challenge a municipality's decision to reject affordable housing proposals in court. A municipality must show justifiable reasons beyond incompatible zoning for rejecting an application for affordable housing development. Communities with at least 10 percent of their housing affordable to low- and moderate-income families are exempt from the statute, which defines affordable housing development as a development that is assisted housing or that sets aside at least 30 percent of its units as affordable housing. Half of the set-aside units must be affordable to households earning no more than 60 percent of the area median income, and half to households earning no more than 80 percent of the area median income.

In 1999, a second Blue Ribbon Commission was created to study the effectiveness of the Appeals Act and the extent to which local zoning regulations are promoting housing choices for low- and moderate-income households. The Commission issued 44 recommendations, including changes to the Appeals Act and procedural recommendations dealing with housing policies and programs. The state adopted key recommendations of the Commission in 2000. According to the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research, as of 2000, 659 affordable housing units were approved as a result of court actions based on the statute.

Incentive Housing Zones

To retain young workers and to protect the state's tax base, Connecticut adopted the Housing for Economic Growth Program in June 2007. This program provides incentives for municipalities to establish overlay zones known as Incentive Housing Zones (IHZs) in eligible locations, defined by proximity to transit facilities, existing or proposed infrastructure, and existing high-density development. Municipalities that choose to participate in the program have to agree to meet minimum density requirements of 6 units per acre for single-family housing, 10 units per acre for duplexes or townhomes, or 20 units per acre for multifamily units located in the IHZs. At least 20 percent of the housing units in a residential or mixed-use development must be affordable to households earning at or below 80 percent of the area median income. In return for creating IHZs that meet these requirements, the municipalities will receive $2,000 for every new housing unit allowed and $2,000–$5,000 for every building permit issued for a multifamily or single-family housing unit in these zones, subject to availability of funds. Research shows that for every single-family housing unit created, the state will receive $12,000 in sales and income tax revenue.

The program also provides technical assistance grants to municipalities for the development of the IHZs. Municipalities can utilize the grants to plan for incentive housing zones, develop incentive housing zone regulations and design standards, and to review applicable subdivision regulations. According to the state's Office of Policy and Management, since the start of the application process in April 2008, eight municipalities have applied for technical assistance grants; three of these have been approved. In addition, a number of communities have expressed interest in applying for the technical assistance grants to create IHZs.


By taking steps to encourage the development of affordable housing, the state of Connecticut is expanding housing opportunities for people of all income levels and ages. In addition to increasing the supply of affordable housing, the legislation adopted by the state has the potential to increase the state’s tax, construction, and jobs revenue, and in the process, promote sustainable growth policies.


Regional Affordable Housing Programs

Housing markets often require regional solutions to affordable housing problems because they extend beyond local municipal boundaries. Approaching affordable housing development on a regional basis can be advantageous, especially in metropolitan areas where an imbalance between jobs and housing occurs. This article will take a look at regional approaches to affordable housing adopted by metropolitan organizations in Portland, Oregon and the Twin Cities metropolitan area of Minnesota.

Portland Metro Council's Regional Affordable Housing Strategy

Affordable rental townhomes developed using LHIA funding in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Photo credit: Metropolitan Council

The Portland Metro Council is an elected regional government whose jurisdiction covers 24 cities and 3 counties. The Metro Council's principal responsibilities include managing the region's urban growth boundary, and providing transportation and waste management planning. Identifying housing as a regional issue, the Metro Council established the Affordable Housing Technical Advisory Committee (HTAC) in 1998 to identify regulatory reforms and incentives designed to increase the inventory of affordable housing in the region. HTAC set a 20-year benchmark need of 90,479 affordable housing units for the Metro region. The housing units, to be built by 2017, have to be affordable to households earning at or below 50 percent of the median household income.

The goals and strategies of HTAC are described in the Regional Affordable Housing Strategy (RAHS), which was adopted by the Metro Council in June 2000 as an amendment to Title 7 of the Urban Growth Management Functional Plan. The amendment requires member local governments to consider adoption of voluntary housing production goals, and amendments to comprehensive plans and ordinances to ensure housing affordability for households at all income levels. RAHS also contains strategies that local governments can adopt to increase affordable housing production, such as fee waivers, density bonus programs, and flexible building and parking code requirements. Local governments are required to submit progress reports outlining the strategies they have implemented to meet the housing production goals. According to the compliance report adopted by the Metro Council in 2005, three local governments — the city of Portland, Multnomah County, and the city of Beaverton — adopted the voluntary housing production goals and met all the requirements of the RAHS. Fourteen jurisdictions reported having comprehensive plans that contain policies to ensure housing diversity, as called for in the RAHS.

Following HTAC's recommendation for an assessment three years after adoption of the RAHS, a Housing Choice Task Force (HCTF) was established in 2005. The HCTF reviewed physical, financial, political and regulatory barriers to meeting affordable housing production goals and provided recommendations to the Metro Council for removing the barriers and reducing the cost of affordable housing development. Regulatory barriers identified by HCTF include restrictive zoning and building codes, parking requirements, and rigid design standards. The task force recommended adoption of expedited review processes, flexible parking ratio requirements, transit-oriented development policies, and form-based codes to replace design standards.

Metropolitan Council's Livable Communities Program

Established by the Minnesota Legislature in 1967, the Metropolitan Council serves the seven-county Twin Cities metropolitan area. The Metropolitan Council’s responsibilities include provision of regional services, such as public transit, economic development, waste management, and affordable housing development. The Metropolitan Council provides an estimate for the region’s affordable housing needs and allocates the requirement among the region's communities. The Council provided an estimate of 51,030 affordable units to be built between 2011—2020 within the region.

In 1995, the Minnesota legislature enacted the Livable Communities Act (LCA), which authorizes the Metropolitan Council to provide funding to increase the production of affordable housing by removing regulatory barriers through three funds or accounts. Funding for the three accounts comes from a highly unusual financing arrangement — principal sources include a 7-county property tax and general fund transfers. In 2007, funds allocated to the three accounts totaled $17.6 million — 69 percent of which were generated from the 7-county property tax. The Local Housing Incentives Account (LHIA) provides funding to create affordable housing for low- and moderate-income households, the Tax Base Revitalization Account provides grants for brownfield redevelopment projects that create jobs and affordable housing, and the Livable Communities Demonstration Account provides funding to promote compact, higher-density developments that include diverse housing options. Communities that want to participate in the LCA program must develop affordable housing production goals in cooperation with the Metropolitan Council. Funding is based on a rating system, which provides an annual performance score to communities applying for grants. For example, communities that have adopted initiatives (such as a density bonus or flexible design and zoning standards) receive 0–15 points towards their annual score. As of 2006, over 2,600 new and rehabilitated affordable rental units, and more than 800 new and rehabilitated affordable ownership units have resulted from grants provided through the LHIA.


Both Portland and Twin Cities Metropolitan areas are known for their regional governance structures and both have recognized that the provision of affordable housing at the regional level is vital to the long-term sustainability of their communities. The challenges of meeting metropolitan-wide demand for affordable housing are numerous. Through voluntary, incentive-based approaches, the Portland Metro Council and the Metropolitan Council have succeeded in increasing their regions' affordable housing supply.


Greyfield Redevelopment Creates Housing Opportunities

Single-family housing development in downtown Park Forest, Illinois. Photo credit: Village of Park Forest
Greyfields are abandoned or underutilized regional malls found typically in suburban locations. Due to competition, changes in demand, and general disinvestment, these once-bustling shopping centers remain as vacant, dilapidated buildings and expansive fields of empty asphalt. The average greyfield is 45 acres in area, and in communities with limited amount of land available for development, greyfields are ideally suited to be redeveloped as high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods that can provide affordable housing opportunities. This article will highlight one such redevelopment project that has transformed a once blighted, underused regional mall into a vibrant town center.

Park Forest, Illinois: Greyfield to Main Street

Located 30 miles from downtown Chicago, the village of Park Forest, Illinois developed around Park Forest Plaza, one of the first regional shopping malls in the United States. Developed in the 1950s, the mall started declining in the 1970s due to its location away from major highways and to competition from newer malls in the region. Following the departure of anchor stores, like Sears, Goldblatt’s, and Marshall Field’s, the village of Park Forest acquired the property in 1995. In 1996, the village hired a consultant to develop a master plan for the 48-acre mall site that would transform the greyfield into a main street-inspired downtown.

The downtown master plan included policies to promote new residential infill development on the former Goldblatt and Sears sites. The village worked with focus groups of residents as part of a public visioning process, and created a new tax increment financing district in 1997 to facilitate the redevelopment. The mall redevelopment created a new downtown for Park Forest with 275,000 square feet of retail space, 75,000 square feet of office space, 335 rental units, and 68 for-sale single-family homes. On what was formerly a parking lot for the Sears store, there are two senior apartment complexes with 95 independent living units and 79 assisted living units. In 2007, the village commissioned a strategic plan study to further explore sustainable growth opportunities for the region, and is demolishing the former Marshall Field’s building to be redeveloped, possibly as new single-family and multifamily housing.


The availability of existing infrastructure, convenient location, and land area of greyfields offers the opportunity to create mixed-use developments with diverse housing options. Local governments can play an important role in redeveloping greyfields by removing regulatory barriers, such as rigid zoning codes, and providing incentives for development. Utilizing the master planning process, Park Forest was successful in converting an aging, underused mall site into a mixed-use village center with retail, office, and residential uses.


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