Despite a small rise in the number of housing permits issued in the state last year, homebuilders say that the supply still isn’t keeping up with the demand, citing the permit process as a constant obstacle.

The state Department of Economic and Community Development released the year-end housing permit numbers for every town in Connecticut last week. Overall, 9,607 permits were issued, representing a 3.8 percent increase over the 9,254 permits issued in 2001.

“In light of the economic uncertainty we have experienced in Connecticut the past year, housing permit activity was remarkably strong in 2002,” said DECD Commissioner James F. Abromaitis. “The 9,607 housing units authorized represents the highest total in the past three years and the third-highest total since 1990.”

Six of the eight counties saw increases in permits last year, with Fairfield and New Haven reporting losses. Kolie Chang, senior research analyst with DECD, explained that both counties saw major developments in 2001 and each posted unusually high numbers of permits that year.

“Those counties had a few huge developments of 300 units in 2001, and that’s why you see their numbers down for 2002,” said Chang.

She predicted another good year for permits in 2003 as long as interest rates remain low, but noted that despite good numbers, the supply of housing isn’t keeping up with the demand.

“The demand is still higher than the supply,” said Chang. “But this way we won’t have too much supply in the market, creating a bubble like in the 1980s. We don’t want to overbuild.”

Generally, homebuilders in Connecticut cannot meet the demand for housing, and that is related to a number of factors. The largest problem is that builders often run across permit delays.

“This is a statewide problem,” said Bill Ethier, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Connecticut. “Every community is different and there are some that are easier to get permits in than others. There can be anywhere from 10 to 20 different decision makers reviewing a permit application, and it only takes one to throw up a brick wall.”

Lengthy Delays

In response to the barriers facing builders, the HBAC recently enacted the Local Regulatory Affairs Program. Members of the association will work with officials at the local level to try and make the permitting process easier.

“The whole intent is to try and get better decisions out of local decision-makers,” said Ethier. With 169 towns, each with their own planning, zoning and wetlands boards, police and fire chiefs and town planning officials, homebuilders “really have to run the gauntlet,” said Ethier.

With support from local chapters, the effort is going to be coordinated out of the association’s state office in West Hartford. The HBAC has hired a planner to help run the program and is continuing its efforts to lobby at the state capital as well.

Lengthy delays in the permit process continue to plague homebuilders in some areas.

“There are some instances where we feel that if you meet the regulations you should get a quick and easy approval, but in reality some of these permits can take years,” said Ethier. “This waiting can add to the cost of the final product.”

Ethier also remarked that surprise conditions often are placed on approvals and can “whittle away” a development.

“A developer can come in with 20 units on 40 acres of land, but at the end of the night he’s not going to get his 20 units – they whittle away. Boards might try to save this ridgeline, or save this wooded area so the developer can’t have that many homes.”

He added, “There’s a huge anti-housing bias that just plays out every night of the week.”

Some cities have taken huge steps to ease the permitting process for homebuilders. Danbury, for example, led the pack last year in housing permits with 261, up from 236 last year. During the last year and a half the city has undergone a housing boom and the Planning Department has an updated permitting process that helps handle the load and consequently stimulates growth.

“There’s been some major investments in technology,” said Sean Hearty, the department’s director of permit coordination. “We created the Permit Center, which is really a one-stop shop for permits.”

With the new Permit Center, which is primarily based online, the applicant fills out an application instead of a permit. After answering a few basic questions the program tailors the application to the individual project so that the number of forms to fill out is greatly reduced.

“We’ve really sped up the process and focused on customer service,” said Hearty. “We know that these economic dollars are going to get sparse, so we want to do what we can to help move the process along and get these projects under way.”

Now all nine permitting departments are channeled through one main system that also houses all of the inspections.

There are customer service representatives in-house that walk applicants through the process and make sure they have all the necessary maps and plans.

“We’ve made it a lot easier so a lot more permits get through,” said Hearty. “We want to show people that it’s not a big deal and we want to change the public’s perception of City Hall. We’ll jump through the hoops so you don’t have to.”

Thomas Assheton, broker/owner of Re/Max Unlimited Real Estate in Danbury, explained that part of the reason behind the city’s housing boom is the fact that Danbury is a good hub, centrally located between several major destinations. That, combined with lower housing prices, has made the city an attractive spot for new construction.

“The pricing is lower than if you go to Gulf Coast,” said Assheton. “We have an average sale price of $300,000, and the next town over, Ridgefield, had an average single-family home price of $700,000.”

Assheton also noted that much of Danbury’s buyers come from New York because the taxes in Connecticut are less than half of what they are in Westchester County, New York.

The HBAC plans to work alongside local decision makers to help reach a mutual agreement and create more situations like that in Danbury. The plan is to show that fiscal impacts of housing can often be positive.

“Even when the fiscal impacts are negative they’re nowhere near negative as what the [opposition] makes it out to be,” said Ethier.

Aside from the education element, he added, the HBAC program also will include a litigation element.

“We are going to step up when needed, and we’re not going to be shy about taking towns to task when they have particularly outrageous permitting processes,” he said.

Individual HBAC members have been dealing with such issues at the local level all along, but Ethier said it was time for the association to become more active. He said there are roughly 1,000 members in the association employing about 45,000 people in the state of Connecticut.