In housing, ‘affordable’ has many meanings and rules

The Housing Authority’s Congregate Housing on Prospect Ridge has 34 one-bedroom units. Much of the building was once a seminary and later, Board of Education headquarters.

The term “affordable housing” might bring to mind controversial oversized building projects that don’t conform to local zoning regulations, but what exactly is affordable housing? Who subsidizes it? Who qualifies for it, and is there any readily available in Ridgefield?

It turns out there are few simple answers when it comes to affordable housing — which refers to any number of state and federal programs and even private developments that provide people with financial need with below-market places to live.

The definition of need and rent levels varies from program to program, and some programs include other restrictions, like age and medical requirements.

The biggest landlord of affordable housing in town is the Ridgefield Housing Authority, a state agency whose members are appointed by the Board of Selectmen, and a property management contractor, Winn Residential.

The Housing Authority has 152 mostly subsidized affordable units on three “campuses” in the village: Ballard Green, just off Gilbert Street, the Congregate Housing on Prospect Ridge for seniors and the handicapped, and the recently completed “Meadows” complex for low- and moderate-income families.

A growing part of Ridgefield’s affordable housing stock consists of privately owned units built under state statute 8-30g.

The law has been at the center of many controversial building applications in recent years because it allows developers to overstep local zoning regulations in towns where less than 10% of housing stock is considered affordable — like Ridgefield.

The builder has to set aside 30% of units in a project as “affordable” — for people earning 60% to 80% of the state or area median income (whichever is lower) — for at least 40 years through a deed restriction.

For a single person, the state median income is $53,025, and 60% of that is $31,815. For a family of four, the median income is $101,973, and 60% is $61,183.

In exchange, builders’ applications have few constraints and may be rejected only if the negative impact is seen as outweighing the need for affordable housing.

Because the units are privately owned and operated, the landlord is in charge of verifying tenants’ incomes, and there is no centralized information about vacancies.

The town’s Social Services Department doesn’t keep a running list as units become available. Neither does the town’s Affordable Housing Committee. And unlike the Housing Authority units, which are all coordinated by one group, there is no single waiting list to get on for other affordable units.

The apartments are rented just like any other unit, only applicants have to provide proof of their income levels, said Roni Agress of William Pitt Southeby’s, who represents the twin apartment buildings on Route 7 just north of the Route 35.

The project was stalled for years with just one of the two buildings built, but it sold last year and the new owner finished the second building.

“The actual [application] process is managed by the property manager,” she said.

“What they do is they fill out an application which we present to them, which explains their past rental history, their employment and how much money they make, and then they also give supporting documentation such as W-2s from the previous year or their check stubs for a certain amount of time,” said Geoff Ringler of RoeCo, the property management company for the complex. “In addition to that, we run credit checks and typically get landlord and employee referrals.”

That complex has 50 units, 15 of which are affordable.

The 60% units rent for around $1,000, and the 80% units rent for $1,396.

By comparison, the market-rate units are renting for around $1,950, she said.

“At this time five of the nine units that are available are rented,” Ms. Agress said.

There were five applicants for the four remaining units, Ms. Agress said, but she added, “I can always take applications.”

After a slew of begrudging approvals from Planning and Zoning under 8-30g, projects are springing up in the village.

At 593 Main Street, where 16 units are being built, five are affordable, with three at the 60% level and two at the 80% level.

They’re all two bedrooms, and affordable rents are around $1,000 and around $1,500, said the property developer, Patrick Downend.

The market rate rents haven’t been set yet for the property, which isn’t expected to be completed until late summer or early fall.

Jo Mineo of Neumann Real Estate is handling the applications for that property.

Once the affordable projects fill up, they tend to stay filled.

Steve Zemo, whose Ridgefield Apartments company owns 13 affordable units, said his company does keep a waiting list of applicants, “but I do not encourage people [to apply] since tenants tend not to move once they are in.”

Mr. Downend agreed that with other affordable properties he owns, tenants seem to stay for a long time.

“Many of our other rentals would qualify as affordable in terms of the monthly rent,” Mr. Zemo added. “However, they are not deed-restricted, so there are no income limitations, etc.”

Mr. Zemo echoed a common sentiment — that there are a number of rentals in town that are within the price range of state affordable standards, but that they are not officially recognized as such.

The state statute is “one law that defines one particular type of housing,” said David Goldenberg, chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee.

He lobbied the Planning and Zoning Commission to broaden regulations allowing accessory apartments, rental units that can be created in previously single-family homes. They are often more affordable than apartments in larger complexes.

“There is some market-rate housing that is priced down near what some statutes would consider affordable,” Mr. Goldenberg said. “But those rents can fluctuate as high as the market will allow, and when the economy is good they get up there.

There were nine apartments listed from $1,250 to $1,500 on the Multiple Listings Service Tuesday afternoon, according to Ms. Mineo, and eight were one-bedroom units. She said that is pretty typical, though many rental units are not listed on the MLS.

“The benefit of deed-restricted housing is that no matter what happens with the economy, you still have the availability of units that are affordable,” Mr. Goldenberg said.

The Affordable Housing Committee is different from the Housing Authority.

“We were formed in 1996, we report to the Board of Selectmen, and our mission is to work with other organizations in town to help increase the diversity of housing,” Mr. Goldenberg said.

“We are not, and I have to underscore this, the 8-30g committee,” he added.

“Affordable housing is just one part of housing, and housing is just one part of planning,” he said.

“This town really needs to look down the road, rather than make short-term, ad-hoc decisions. …

“We’re not doing the kind of long-term thinking that we need in order to deal with opportunities like the Schlumberger property or like the transit-oriented development in Branchville.”

A subsequent story will describe the Housing Authority’s holdings in town and how long it may take to obtain a unit.

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