Apartments: Demand for cheaper rentals is growing

Workers walk around the site of 7 North Salem Road earlier this month. Developer Mike Eppoliti’s project will be completed in the late summer, and will offer 15 apartment units to be rented when it opens. — Ivanha Paz photo

Renting apartments in Ridgefield isn’t cheap.
With 19 units available at an average list price of $2,390 a month for a two-bedroom and $1,600 for a one-bedroom, two groups of the renters — millennials, who are new to the workforce, and retired seniors — are being priced out.
The Ridgefield Housing Authority has 151 Section 8-30g affordable housing units, but wait lists span from one to six years, and often these two demographics don’t qualify.
Since he first began building apartments in the 1980s, developer Steve Zemo said, the population in need of rentals hasn’t changed — although he has noticed a trend of increasing retirees who are looking for rentals.
“It’s working people, the workforce — that hasn’t changed,” he said. “People who are at that stage in their life that are not ready to purchase or don’t want to purchase a home. …
“There’s a whole other issue of housing for the elderly as the demographic begins to change.”
‘Workforce housing’
Zemo coined the term “workforce housing,” meaning apartments geared toward working people with a salary on the lower end of the spectrum.
“If the requirement is one bedroom versus two bedrooms, the price range is ideally between $1,000 and $2,000, and ideally that includes heat,” said Zemo.
This range falls between state-classified affordable housing — units priced for households that make 80% of the median income or below  — and the average rental price.
He already owns six workforce units at The Marketplace complex on Danbury Road — four two-bedroom units which rent for $1,800 a month and two one-bedroom units which rent for $1,300 a month.
Because of the success of The Marketplace, especially with millennials and retirees, Zemo is planning to build eight two-bedroom, two-bathroom workforce housing units at 55 Old Quarry Road that will be rented at $2,000 a month.
“I can remember when those were approved back in the mid 80s, there was a question of who’s going to live there,” said Zemo.
“It’s really based on a model of the classic Ridgefield Main Street — the second floor of the businesses were apartments, not offices.”
Workforce housing is different from state-regulated affordable housing.
“It doesn’t have an application process, the market is determining its affordability, it has some basic amenities, and in our case, it’s typically pet-friendly,” said Zemo.
He said what drives affordability is someone’s income.
“In the 2012 U.S census, approximately 30% of houses had incomes from $35,000 to $75,000, so if you apply the classic home budget that 25% to 30% of income is for housing, you can see that there are not a lot of options for movement.”
Zemo said workforce housing needs to be developed to keep millennials in town.
“That’s a group that trends to not wanting to buy a big house and really wants to be in a town or city center,” he said.
What a deal
State Rep. John Frey, an associate at Coldwell Banker, told The Press that apartments at that price would rent quickly.
In 2016, 44 one-bedroom apartments rented for an average of $1,720, while 104 two-bedroom units were rented for an average of $2,180.
According to Frey, “$2,000 for a two-bedroom apartment would be considered affordable, and would rent pretty quickly.”
Developer Michael Eppoliti, who owns buildings at 35 and 59 Danbury Road and is nearing the completion of a development at 7 North Salem Road, said that all apartments — regardless of where they fall in price range — are in high demand.
Seniors
Zemo, citing a recent Harvard University study, said that the over-65 population is going to go from 45 million to 78 million by 2030.
“They will need one-floor living,” the selectman said.   
“We have an aging population, and if we want to be able to keep them here, we need housing that adjusts to them — and not just at a certain income level.”
Some seniors are taking advantage of the town’s regulations that allow the building of “accessory apartments” in homes that are already in residential zones.
Assistant Town Planner Adam Schnell said many residents are applying for accessory apartments on a monthly basis.
“People essentially are bringing in their parents,” he said, “allowing their parents to come live with them to assist them.”
High demand
According to Schnell, none of the affordable housing units are available right now.
Developers who are building under the state’s 8-30g law need to have 30% of their units at affordable housing rates, of which 15% are for families whose income is less than or equal to 60% of the median. The remaining units are for families with incomes less than or equal to 80% of the median.
Eppoliti owns 12 apartments — four of which are affordable — on 159 Danbury Road.
”We recently had an 80% one-bedroom affordable come available and there were more than 100 inquiries,” he said.
The developer’s building on North Salem Road also has 15 new apartments to rent, five of which will be affordable housing.
He said the units at 80% affordability will rent for around $1,200 per month and the 60% affordable units will rent for around $900 per month.
The project is scheduled to be completed towards the end of the summer this year.
Illegal apartments
Some opt to find affordable options through other, not necessarily legal, means.
Zoning Enforcement Officer Richard Baldelli said he often receives calls about single-family homes where residents section off a space — usually the basement — and convert it into a separate apartment for rent.
“These units that have been done without the town overseeing them usually run into building code issues,” he said, “or some other issues with the health department.”
According to Baldelli, the problem has remained constant for the past 30 years without  increase.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and it’s been here for the 30 years that I’ve been here,” he said.
In some instances, the extra dwelling turns out to be legal.
Almost all Ridgefield homes built under zoning laws in the 1960s can be considered two-family homes, he said.
However, it’s the basement units that pose the biggest threat, since more often than not they don’t have proper escape routes in case of emergencies.
Under current zoning laws, there can be a maximum of five unrelated people living in a single-family home. Anything else is considered an illegal boarding house, something the zoning enforcement officer sees infrequently nowadays.
“Over the years that has happened on occasion,” said Baldelli.
“A couple of years ago, it was pretty predominant. I think the fire marshal and I did an informational crackdown and it seems to have abated.”
 

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