With new plan, Ridgefield aims to take affordable housing ‘seriously at last’

RIDGEFIELD — A new plan proposes housing and zoning policies that could make it easier for people, such as senior citizens, to afford to live in town.

Released by the Ridgefield Affordable Housing Committee this month, the draft of the affordable housing plan is before the public and must be approved by the Board of Selectmen before a June deadline to get the document to the state. Towns in the area are working on similar plans.

“The state has made it clear that our town has a responsibility to create more affordable housing,” said David Goldenberg, who chairs the committee. “The data shows that there is a real need for more affordable housing in Ridgefield. The only question is: Are we going to do it the state’s way and have them impose more mandates on us? Or are are we going to take it seriously at last and address the need in our own way?”

Steps the town could take include asking the Planning and Zoning Commission to review regulations to better encourage multifamily housing and moving forward with building affordable housing at Prospect Ridge. The town could also promote “adaptive reuse,” which means turning existing buildings, such as mills, into housing.

Kick-starting plans for transit-oriented development in Branchville could add 15 to 20 deed-restricted units over the next five years, according to the plan. This project has been held up due to lack of sewer capacity, although town officials hope to connect to a plant in Redding.

The plan also proposes developing a housing trust fund that would support the construction and preservation of affordable housing.

The committee worked with a consultant, Glenn Chalder of Planimetrics, and has sought public input on the plan, conducting interviews with stakeholders and holding meetings, including a public information session on Wednesday evening.

Goldenberg said some were “hostile” toward the plan and the committee at Wednesday’s meeting due to misunderstanding’s about affordable housing.

“My toughest job is to get the allies, the people who would support this to show up,” he said. “Because people who oppose it have personal and visceral objection to it. The people who support it, it doesn't affect them personally so my job is to make sure that supporters come out.”

Need for affordable housing

With a median income of $164,000, Ridgefield is perceived as affluent town, yet there’s an “invisible” need among some residents, Goldenberg said. The committee reports 42 percent of renters and 28 percent of homeowners in Ridgefield are burdened by housing costs.

Goldenberg said he receives at least one call a week from Ridgefielders in “desperate” need for housing after a “change in their circumstance,” such as divorce, a death or a lost job.

“They want to stay in town,” he said. “They want to keep their kids in school. There’s no place for them.”

He and First Selectman Rudy Marconi said there are misconceptions about affordable housing that have led to some opposition to the plan.

However, the town needs to look not just at housing that’s subsidized by the government, but “starter homes” and retirement homes, Marconi said.

“I look at affordable as can my kids come back here and live?” he said. “Can young people move in? A young couple getting started, is there an opportunity for them to get started?”

The plan cites an about 1,380-unit gap in affordable housing units.

In 2021, the median prices for single-family homes sold was $799,000, while the median rent was $2,500 a month, according to data from local realtors cited in the plan.

“These prices are well above what a household qualifying for affordable housing can pay,” the plan states.

The maximum prices renters qualifying for affordable housing can pay range from about $1,360 for a studio and around $2,100 for a four-bedroom, according to the plan. For single-family homes or condos, they can afford between $218,000 for a one-bedroom and $312,000 for a four-bedroom.

There’s a waiting list at all the facilities owned by the Ridgefield Housing Authority, according to the plan.

Ridgefield once had a moratorium on the controversial statute 8-30g, which allows developers to bypass zoning regulations, with certain exceptions, if they promise to build a percentage of affordable housing. That moratorium expired in 2018, and Ridgefield would need another 60 to 70 units of affordable housing to qualify again, according to the plan.

Recommendations

The committee found the town could use about 1,380 additional affordable housing units — a benchmark the plan acknowledges would be challenging to reach.

“Given the limitations of available land and the cost of development, it is highly unlikely Ridgefield could achieve this number within 10 years, let alone within the five-year scope of the plan,” the draft states.

A more reasonable target is adding 125 units over five years by partnering with affordable housing developers and promoting development on town-owned land. That would increase the number of deed restricted housing in town by more than 40 percent, according to the plan.

Expanding affordable housing at Ridgefield Housing Authority’s Ballard Green and creating a “mixed development” at Halpin Lane are among the proposals.

Various changes to zoning regulations could create incentives for developers and homeowners that would add deed restricted units. Proposals include creating inclusionary zoning and transitional zone known as “middle housing” that may include duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and large developments, according to the plan.

The town must look at the bigger picture beyond encouraging the construction of affordable housing, Marconi said. For example, lower-income residents may not be able to afford gas prices to travel far from work. That’s why it’d be key to build affordable housing in Branchville where residents would have access to the train station, he said.

“You cannot just build the housing units and say ‘OK everyone can come here now’ because it’s a one legged stool,” he said. “Where are they going to work? And if they keep their present jobs, do we have good public transportation to get them there?”