The Connecticut Mortgage Bankers Association held its annual Mayors’ Forum on Affordable Housing last week at the Aqua Turf Country Club in Plantsville.

In Connecticut’s larger and poorer cities, the struggle against homelessness and large tax burdens, as well as the educational work to help more citizens own homes, continue. Mayors and city leaders are still pushing for more regional planning with the hope that the smaller, and richer, towns that often surround their own cities will open their doors to more affordable housing and ease the big cities’ burden.

In those smaller towns, planning and zoning boards rule over density with an iron fist and developers push Section 8-30g – the state’s anti-exclusionary zoning law – projects that may not fall in line with the towns’ expansion plans.

But some are trying new approaches to addressing Connecticut’s affordable housing crisis, and municipal leaders came together last week to speak to members of the Connecticut Mortgage Bankers Association at its annual Mayors’ Forum on Affordable Housing at the Aqua Turf Country Club in Plantsville.

Mayors from Middletown, New London and New Britain, three cities that are exempt from 8-30g – meaning more than 10 percent of their housing stock is considered affordable – were joined by the first selectman of Ridgefield, a small town in Fairfield County that is far from meeting the state-sanctioned quota of affordable housing.

The municipal leaders told the crowd of mortgage bankers and affordable housing advocates about the ideas they have put into action to spur affordable housing production or homeownership.

Ridgefield is still hundreds of affordable units away from exemption from 8-30g. The town just lost an appeal, so a project that includes 15 affordable units will be going in, but that still leaves the community more than 700 units away from having 10 percent of the housing stock considered affordable.

“We need to look beyond 8-30G,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi.

Although some in the town would be content to “lock the door” and not let any more development come to the town, Marconi, a longtime resident of Ridgefield, said he hopes to bring back some of the diversity that the town once knew.

The average selling price for a home in Ridgefield is around $800,000, according to Marconi. New homes go for around $1.3 million.

The 8-30g projects help raise the number of affordable housing units in the town, but 15 at a time are not quickly going to add up to an exemption from the law, or even enough to provide housing for children of the town’s residents or for seniors looking to move somewhere smaller and cheaper.

One idea the town has put into action is to ask people to donate tracts of land they are not using to the town, and use them as a tax write-off. The town can then use the land to develop more affordable housing.

Ridgefield, like many other towns of similar size, is also rife with accessory apartments. The apartments are not recognized as legal by the state, but figuring out a way to put the livable ones back into circulation would solve a couple of problems, Marconi said. First, it would allow the owners to have a second income, which could be particularly helpful to seniors who are on a fixed income but facing property taxes and other expenses that could push them into smaller, cheaper homes.

Many of the apartments also could be considered affordable, if the state would recognize them, according to Marconi. With 450 illegal apartments in Ridgefield, it would bring the town closer to being exempt from 8-30g.

‘A Real Squeeze’

In the bigger cities that were represented, however, many of the concerns revolve around assisting the homeless and helping current renters buy their own homes. In Middletown, the largest city in Middlesex County, single-family homes range from $175,000 to $750,000, according to Mayor Sebastian Guiliano. The city has a homeless shelter and transitional housing, and a new 96-unit project from the Department of Housing and Urban Development just went into the city.

Guiliano said he would like to see more of the “perpetual renters” in the city become homeowners. Factors such as price, incidental expenditures such as closing costs and commission and the ability to pay other costs, like insurance and taxes, once the house is purchased are keeping many renters away, he noted. He also appealed to the crowd of mortgage bankers for some down payment assistance for potential homeowners.

New London has a similar issue. Twenty-one percent of the city’s residential units are considered affordable, but more than 50 percent of its land is tax exempt because of institutions like the Coast Guard Academy.

That creates a unique situation of high taxes and makes New London a little less affordable than it would be otherwise. Only 30 percent of the homes in the city are owner-occupied, according to Mayor Elizabeth Sabilia.

“We are struggling and striving to seek more homeowner occupancy in the city,” she said.

New London is doing that through educating people, many of whom have been renting for generations. They often do not believe they can afford homes, and do not know the responsibilities of owning.

The city has been helping by rehabilitating blighted areas and building homes there. The private sector has helped: Seventy-four new condo permits were issued last year. There are also 180 new rental units. But most areas of the city are one or the other – either blighted or affluent – Sabilia said.

“What we’re seeing in our housing market is a real squeeze of the middle class,” she said.

In New Britain, where the census says 72,000 people live, but where a population of 76,000 to 78,000 is more realistic, the city has created partnerships with financial institutions to help citizens buy and rehabilitate older one- to six-family homes, according to Mayor Timothy Stewart.

Even with all the efforts, Connecticut is the sixth-most expensive state for renters, according to Tim Coppage, vice president of housing development for the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. There are 33,000 homeless people in the state, and the existing housing is aging. One of the main solutions is to get the state, cities and towns to recognize affordable housing as an economic driver, Coppage said.

Without affordable housing, he added, the population will continue to age and could decline – factors that are not favorable for a vibrant economy.