New Bill Would Require that Connecticut Towns Allocate Sewer Capacity for Affordable Housing

By: Cate Hewitt • Published February 7, 2024

A proposal in the state Legislature would require towns with sewers to allocate capacity for future multifamily and affordable housing needs in their region.

The provision is part of a bill proposed by Growing Together Connecticut, a grassroots consortium focused on increasing housing affordability, that includes a $50 million infrastructure fund toward ensuring sewer line availability.

“What our proposal would have [the towns] do is, when they’re planning for sewers, to accommodate through sewer connections a third of their portion of the regional need for affordable housing,” said Erin Boggs, executive director of the Open Communities Alliance.

In a news release, Growing Together Connecticut called sewer infrastructure “the most cost-effective and environmentally sensitive way to develop housing in compact communities, which could be urban, suburban or rural.”

According to the consortium, “128 towns in Connecticut have sewers, either by connecting into another municipality’s system or by using their own.”

If towns include plans for affordable housing in their sewer plans, Boggs said, they would gain access to the fund for expanding capacity. Developers would also have access to the fund if they were paying for a sewer extension.

But Boggs said the $50 million is just a starting point.

“The need for sewer investment is considerable. And so this is just a starting place,” she said. “This would be something that we would need to continue to invest in … and there’s also the possibility of funding from the federal government as well that could come into play to support this.”

Boggs suggested that towns without sewers could also create a Water Pollution Control Authority to access the fund.

The bill also enables statewide use of housing vouchers, establishes a housing growth fund that would reward communities “doing their part to solve the state housing shortage,” tackles homelessness through the state’s response system and provides safeguards for renters against unjustified evictions.

Timothy Hollister, an environmental attorney, told CT Examiner that the proposed affordable housing sewer provision is significant because some Connecticut towns have made sewers accessible for market-rate housing but not for affordable and multifamily housing.

“Preventing sewers where they should be extended is a matter of the federal civil rights laws,” Hollister said.

Hollister said sewers are public utilities paid for by taxpayer dollars.

“A lot of the towns think they have carte blanche — complete discretion — to decide where and when sewers are going to be extended. And my view is if there is physical availability, geographic availability, and availability of capacity, they don’t have the authority to say no. And that’s a legal issue that’s been playing out across the state of Connecticut,” he said.

Boggs said the proposed bill is laying the groundwork for a reintroduction next year of a measure requiring the state to assess affordable housing needs by region and then apportion that need using a specific formula, while also requiring towns to zone for affordable housing. The bill was killed in committee in 2021. In 2023 one part of the bill was passed, a requirement that the Office of Policy and Management determine a methodology for apportioning each town’s fair share of affordable housing, with a deadline of Dec. 1.

Boggs also noted that affordable housing can be built without sewers.

“There’s a lot you can do to create affordable housing on lots where you see mega-mansions going in right now. If they’re on septic. so could a four-unit series of homes,” she said. “There’s a lot you can do as a community septic,” she said.

She said the state should consider zoning according to soil capacity for septic systems in areas without sewers.

“It would be a wise thing for Connecticut to shift to something called ‘soil based zoning,’ which means you don’t assume that you need an acre or 2 acres or 5 acres in order to have a safe septic environment. That’s simply not the case. What it really depends on is the soil and the topography of any given plot of land,” she said. “So we need to get more nuanced about how we assess what the needs are for different kinds of building and make sure that we’re really tailoring the needs to what is required from a health and environmental perspective.”