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Towns in Connecticut's richest area could pay to meet affordable housing goals

 A few of the 18 new affordable housing units built by Greenwich at Armstrong Court.
A few of the 18 new affordable housing units built by Greenwich at Armstrong Court.

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

Under the plan, a town would be able to count certain housing units in other towns toward its own affordable housing goals under Section 8-30g of a decades-old state law that gives developers the ability to challenge towns in court if their affordable housing proposals are denied. Towns are exempt from 8-30g if at least 10% of their units are set aside as affordable or are government assisted.

Few municipalities have reached the 10% threshold set under 8-30g.

The payment suggestion in the draft of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments’ affordable housing plan would mean towns that haven’t reached the goal — most of the towns in the region — can pay an undetermined amount to towns that have reached the goal, such as Stamford, Danbury and Norwalk, for the right to apply certain housing units to their 10% threshold.

The council covers 18 municipalities in Connecticut: Bethel, Bridgewater, Brookfield, Danbury, Darien, Greenwich, New Canaan, New Fairfield, New Milford, Newtown, Norwalk, Redding, Ridgefield, Sherman, Stamford, Weston, Westport and Wilton.

WestCOG staff said the idea was included because of transportation costs and job opportunities. Some municipalities have seen more demand for affordable housing because they have more jobs. The added transportation cost 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.

“It doesn’t make sense to try to situate housing where there’s no public water, no public sewer,” he said. “You’re going to create a huge hill to get over.”

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

The idea is one of several in the plan that advocates are criticizing. They say it will serve to increase segregation and allow some towns to avoid having to make real changes to address the problem.

“I think it’s incredibly disappointing that from what I can tell from reading WestCOG’s plan, that that is a viable means of some of their towns meeting their affordability goals,” said Christie Stewart, director of Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity. “I think that suggesting policy like that moves us backward in the state of Connecticut and not forward.”

Pickering declined to respond to specific criticisms, saying they hadn’t been brought to the council yet.

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

The plan also includes measures such as evaluating inclusionary “zoning concepts” to increase the supply of housing, conducting an inventory of people experiencing homelessness, considering the fiscal and service advantages of creating a regional housing authority and developing an ongoing inventory of low- and moderate-income housing managed by housing authorities, among several other actions.

The plan, which council staff say aims to address the need for more affordable housing in the region, is the result of a 2017 law that requires towns to develop five-year plans to address the need for affordable housing. The deadline to finish the plans is this summer.

The need for more housing for people with low incomes has gotten more attention nationally in recent years as demand has outpaced supply and housing prices and rents have spiked.

The legislature is considering a handful of bills that aim to increase the affordable housing stock or lower rents, including one that would have towns to plan and zone for a certain number of affordable housing units based on a regional need.

Many advocates and experts say restrictive zoning laws in Connecticut make it difficult to develop multifamily housing, which is typically more affordable to those with low incomes. The WestCOG report shows that about 42.5% of renters in the region spend more than 35% of their incomes on rent.

Plan details

Some of the municipalities in the council will develop their own plans that can 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, a staff planner with the council.

Those strategies include suggestions to finance more housing, evaluate adjustments to zoning, increase home ownership rates and establish a regional housing authority.

But housing advocates say it doesn’t include enough tangible steps to address the need.

“It really stops short of calling for the concrete sorts of actions of what we understood should be there,” said Nick Abbott, deputy coordinator at Desegregate CT.

A lack of access to affordable housing has reinforced segregation and kept families with low incomes from accessing schools and other amenities in wealthier towns, advocates said.

Darien’s school board recently rejected a proposal, through the state’s Open Choice Program, that would have allowed 16 Norwalk kindergarteners to attend school in Darien.

Dice Oh, a member of the group People Friendly Stamford, said the problem arises partly because schools and amenities are funded through local taxes. Wealthier suburbs have better-funded schools, and if lower-income families can’t afford to live in the district, their children can’t access the schools.

“I think WestCOG is not acknowledging the status quo where all the poor people and minorities are shunted into the poorer urban areas,” Oh said.

Pickering said the council consulted with the Department of Housing on the decision to develop a regional plan, which council officials believe will be more effective at addressing the need.

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

“I will say there is so much myopic focus on zoning that there’s been a failure to recognize the role that financing plays in all of this,” said Charles Vidich, a senior project manager with the council.

The plan also includes information on funding for homeownership and Connecticut Housing Finance Authority programs that finance housing. Staff said finding financing, particularly for homeowners who want to add an accessory dwelling unit to their home, can be challenging.

Pickering added that the council plans to commission an affordable housing financing study to begin this year.

Advocates said the plan doesn’t include enough specific targets to be effective. They expressed particular concern with the action items that said officials would “evaluate” or “consider” moves rather than make changes.

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

What towns are doing

After the plan goes through its public comment period, the council will consider changes, and municipalities can decide whether to use it. Some are developing their own plans and considering the suggestions in the WestCOG draft.

Westport is drafting its own plan, although the Planning and Development Commission plans to use the WestCOG research and attach the plan as an addendum, 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 sort of moat around Westport,” Dobin said.

Westport’s plan is going to be very granular with specific zoning recommendations for the town and particular ways to encourage multifamily development, Dobin said.

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

Norwalk plans to do something similar. The city likely won’t meet the deadline to submit its plan and will let the state know in the next few days, said Steve Kleppin, planning and zoning director.

Although the city won’t make the deadline, staff said they take the issue seriously and are more concerned with developing a plan that meets the need.

The city has a request out for a consultant to assist in developing the plan and is about a year away from having a complete plan, Kleppin said.

“Something great that the WestCOG plan outlines are various ideas for encouraging affordable housing in town,” he added. “So I’m sure we’ll take a look at that to make sure that the consultants we hire, if they touch on 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 use its own plan. There’s a hearing set for next month on the Danbury plan, said Sharon Calitro, the city’s planning director.

Launched in 2010, The Connecticut Mirror specializes in in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. CT Mirror is nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only.