Cities in the wealthiest area of ​​CT could pay to meet affordable housing goals

A regional affordable housing plan for some of Connecticut’s wealthiest communities could allow cities to pay a fee and count housing units in neighboring cities toward their affordability goals, a move critics say could worsen segregation.

Under the plan, a city could count certain housing units in other cities toward its own affordable housing goals under Section 8-30g of a decades-old state law that gives developers the ability to challenge cities in court if their affordable housing proposals are denied. Cities are exempt from 8-30g if at least 10 percent of their units are reserved as affordable or government supported.

Only a few municipalities have reached the 10 percent threshold set under 8-30g.

The payment proposal in the Western Connecticut Governing Council’s draft Affordable Housing Plan would mean that cities that did not meet the target — most cities in the region — could pay an unspecified amount to cities that did, such as Stamford, Danbury and Norwalk, for the right to apply certain housing units to their 10 percent threshold.

The Council includes 18 Connecticut wards: Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Sherman, Stamford, Weston, Westport, and Wilton.

WestCOG officials said the idea was taken up because of the cost of transportation and employment opportunities. In some municipalities, the demand for affordable housing has increased because they have more jobs. The extra transportation costs for low-income families to get to work from rural areas could make living in those areas unaffordable, said Francis Pickering, the council’s executive director.

“There’s no point in trying to locate homes where there is no public water and sewerage,” he said. “You will create a huge hill to climb over.”

Pickering said details such as whether the policy would be applied retrospectively to housing stock the city already has or would have to be built new have not yet been decided. But, he added, renovating existing stock is cheaper than building new homes.

The idea is one of several in the plan that proponents have criticized. They say this will serve to increase segregation and allow some cities to avoid real change to address the problem.

“I think it’s incredibly disappointing that from what I can glean from reading the WestCOG plan, this is a viable means for some of their cities to meet their affordability goals,” said Christie Stewart, director of the Center for Housing Fairfield County Opportunity. “I think that proposing such a policy will take us back in the state of Connecticut, not forward.”

Pickering declined to respond to specific criticisms, saying they have not yet been brought before the council.

The council is accepting public comments on the document until Wednesday.

The plan also includes actions such as evaluating integrative “zoning” approaches to increase housing supply, conducting an inventory of people affected by homelessness, considering the tax and service benefits of creating a regional housing authority, and developing an ongoing inventory of Low and Medium Housing – Income housing managed by housing authorities, among several other measures.

The plan, which council officials say aims to meet the area’s affordable housing needs, is the result of a 2017 law requiring cities to develop five-year plans to meet affordable housing needs. The deadline for completing the plans is this summer.

The need for more housing for low-income people has attracted more attention across the country in recent years as demand has outstripped supply and house prices and rents have skyrocketed.

Lawmakers are considering a handful of bills aimed at increasing the stock of affordable housing or lowering rents, including one that would require cities to plan and allocate a specific number of affordable housing units based on a regional need.

Many advocates and experts say restrictive zoning laws in Connecticut make it difficult to build multi-family homes, which are typically more affordable for low-income people. The WestCOG report shows that about 42.5 percent of renters in the region spend more than 35 percent of their income on rent.

plan details

Some of the communities on the council will develop their own plans, which may incorporate some elements of the WestCOG plan, while others will adopt their own versions of the plan, Pickering said.

“It has a toolbox of different strategies,” said Kristin Floberg, staff planner at the council.

These strategies include proposals to fund more housing, evaluate zoning adjustments, increase homeownership rates, and establish a regional housing authority.

However, housing advocates say it does not include enough concrete steps to meet the need.

“It really stops at asking for the specific types of action that we understood should be there,” said Nick Abbott, associate coordinator at Desegregate CT.

A lack of access to affordable housing has increased segregation and kept low-income families from accessing schools and other amenities in wealthier cities, advocates said.

The Darien School Board recently rejected a proposal under the state’s Open Choice program that would have allowed 16 Norwalk kindergarten children to attend school in Darien.

Dice Oh, a member of the People Friendly Stamford group, said the problem arises in part because local taxes fund schools and facilities. Wealthier suburbs have better-funded schools, and when lower-income families cannot afford to live in the district, their children do not have access to the schools.

“I think WestCOG doesn’t recognize the status quo, in which all poor people and minorities are relegated to poorer urban areas,” Oh said.

Pickering said the council consulted with the Housing Department on the decision to develop a regional plan that council officials believe will be more effective in meeting needs.

He added that the plan aims to address factors affecting home costs outside of zoning, including financing and building standards. The council also wants to consider access to transport and transport costs for low-income families when adding housing.

“I would say that zoning is so myopic that it doesn’t see the role that funding plays in all of this,” he said Charles Vidich, a senior project manager at the city council.

The plan also includes information on home ownership financing and Connecticut Housing Finance Authority programs that finance housing. The staff said financing can be difficult to find, especially for homeowners looking to add an additional unit to their home.

Pickering added that the council plans to commission a study on affordable housing financing later this year.

Proponents said the plan did not include enough specific targets to be effective. They expressed particular concern about the action points, which officials said would be “evaluating” or “considering” steps rather than making changes.

“The purpose of effective planning is to set a goal and work toward that goal,” Stewart said. “WestCOG made it part of the way there, but didn’t make it the rest of the way.”

what cities do

After the plan has passed its public comment period, the council will consider changes and municipalities can decide whether to use it. Some are developing their own plans, taking into account the suggestions in the WestCOG draft.

Westport is drafting its own plan, although the Planning and Development Commission plans to use WestCOG research and attach the plan as an appendix, Commissioner Danielle Dobin said.

“We’re part of the region, we’re part of the state … We’re not going to pretend that there’s some kind of moat around Westport,” Dobin said.

Westport’s plan will be very granular, including specific zoning recommendations for the city and special opportunities to encourage multifamily development, Dobin said.

“I will definitely be reviewing their recommendations with the Westport Planning and Zoning Commission, and we will certainly seek their advice if it makes sense for Westport,” she added.

Norwalk is planning something similar. The city will likely miss the deadline to submit its plan and will notify the state in the next few days, said Steve Kleppin, planning and zoning director.

Though the city won’t meet the deadline, employees said they are taking the issue seriously and are more concerned with developing a plan that meets the needs.

The city has requested a consultant to help develop the plan and is about a year away from a full plan, Kleppin said.

“Something great that the WestCOG plan outlines are different ideas for promoting affordable housing in the city,” he added. “I’m sure we’ll look at that to make sure the consultants we hire are addressing those ideas and if not, why.”

Danbury has already developed its plan and while there are some similarities between it and the WestCOG plan, the city will be using its own plan. A hearing on the Danbury Plan is scheduled for next month, said Sharon Calitro, the city’s planning director.

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