Zachary Suri, Contributing Photographer

Last June, a coalition of community groups failed to pass a bill at the state legislature to increase affordable housing near public transit and reduce sprawl. Now, in the new legislative session, they’re trying again. 

The reintroduced legislation, Work Live Ride, aims to reduce urban sprawl by “building up local [and] state capacity for transit-oriented communities” with the long-term aims of increasing housing affordability, boosting economic growth and combating the climate crisis, according to Desegregate Connecticut. The bill died before a vote on the state House floor during the 2023 legislative session. However, SB998, one component of the larger Work Life Ride bill that codified the Office of Responsible Growth, passed. 

“Sprawl is unsustainable, it’s inequitable and it’s bad for all of us, and we’ve been doing it for 50 years in Connecticut and can’t do it anymore,” Desegregate Connecticut Director Pete Harrison told the News. “A post-sprawl future … means communities are safer, they’re greener, they’re more walkable, they’re more diverse, they’re more affordable.”

Desegregate Connecticut is a coalition of over 80 organizations that advocate for improved local and state land use policies in Connecticut. 

The coalition hopes to address Connecticut’s affordable housing and climate crises, which Harrison said are “converging.” The Connecticut Department of Housing reported in 2020 that 50 percent of renters and 30 percent of homeowners allocate over a third of their household income to housing costs. Harrison added that households spend a significant percentage of their income on transportation, which creates environmental costs. According to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, 40 percent of the state’s emissions come from transportation.

“There really isn’t a way to fundamentally make housing cheaper for people if it relies on the old sprawl mentality of drive ‘til you qualify [for a mortgage],” he said. “That is not a way to build sustainable, equitable homes and communities.”

Work Live Ride was initially inspired by a 2021 Massachusetts law that requires over one hundred municipalities to create at least one zoning district dedicated to multi-family housing located near public transit. In 2022, Desegregate Connecticut proposed a similar law for Connecticut, which Harrison said went nowhere.

Afterward, the coalition’s members visited local communities that already had zoning that encouraged high density around public transportation. Harrison said that despite these communities’ eagerness to zone around transit stations, obtaining state funding was a “cumbersome” process.

These perspectives prompted the coalition to come up with Work Live Ride in 2023, which not only creates guidelines for local zoning reform — similar to the 2022 bill — but also streamlines state funding of those reforms. 

“What stands out [about Work Live Ride] is the amount of time that has been spent listening to communities and understanding that even if it’s all transit-oriented development, it’s not going to look the same in every community that wants it,” State Rep. Eleni Kavros DeGraw told the News.

Work Live Ride is currently in front of the Planning and Development Committee, which Kavros DeGraw co-chairs.

Although Work Live Ride did not pass in 2022, Harrison said the passage of SB998 was a “very big, sneaky win.” The law formally established and funded the Office of Responsible Growth, which was initially created in 2006 to oversee local development and affordable housing plans, but lacked formal authority since it did not exist in the state statutes. 

Harrison said he thinks that the success of SB998 will be instrumental in Desegregate Connecticut’s efforts to pass Work Live Ride during the current legislative session since they will no longer need to advocate for state funding for the bill.

Other key differences between last year’s and the current bill include streamlined affordable housing developments — mainly through outreach to nonprofits and religious organizations — and additional environmental protections prompted by criticism from environmental groups, per Harrison.

Win Evarts is the executive director of The Arc of Connecticut, an organization that advocates for the rights of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, or IDDs. The Arc of Connecticut testified in support of last year’s Work Live Ride bill, and Evarts said they plan to support the bill again this year.

Evarts pointed out that many people with IDDs live in state-funded group homes because they cannot cover their housing costs. These group homes, he said, are rarely located near public transportation, limiting individuals with IDDs’ interaction with others. 

“Having affordable housing allows [people with IDDs] to live in a less restrictive way than the traditional home model,” he said. “Living in an integrated community is better than living in a group home that… doesn’t facilitate the making of friends.”

Work Live Ride has received substantial criticism. Much of its opposition last year came from CT 169 Strong, an organization that opposes “top-down” zoning legislation with the mission of achieving “true affordability, not just density,” according to its website

CT 169 Strong released a statement in February denouncing the 2024 Work Live Ride bill. The group said that the bill aims to provide developers with “hand-outs” and strip away local zoning control.

“This bill removes local control, limit[ing] funding resources to communities unless they relent to onerous state mandated guidelines, thus disincentivizing towns from affordable development,” the statement said. 

CT 169 Strong did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Harrison said that Work Live Ride has a “carrot incentive approach,” since towns can opt-in to the bill but are not required to adopt it. Yet the Desegregate Connecticut website notes that the communities that opt-in would be “prioritized for state funding and [would] come first in line.”

Kavros DeGraw said that some critics base their arguments on aspects of previous versions of the bill, rather than looking at the latest version. However, she also acknowledged that housing bills like Work Live Ride often struggle to be “all carrot and no stick.”

“If there is no stick to encourage people to build [affordable housing], the carrots are often not enough,” Kavros DeGraw said. “Expecting all of the carrot money to come from the state is probably unrealistic when you look at how many people are asking for state funds for really good reasons.”

Harrison pointed to the shorter, three-month legislative session this year, compared to the five-month session last year, as a potential obstacle for Work Live Ride.

However, he said he feels optimistic about the bill’s fate, stating that it is in a “very strong position.” 

“It’s a long project that’s going to take a while,” he said. “But getting the hard stuff passed is really where we get in five and 10 years and 20 years into a much, much better, more positive future.”

Desegregate Connecticut was formed in 2020. 

Maia Nehme covers housing and homelessness and Latine communities for the News. Originally from Washington, D.C., she is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in history.