Affordable housing: Goldenberg pushes town to get serious

With more than 1,100 Ridgefield households — 13% — struggling to pay bills, and a state law requiring towns to have an affordable housing plan updated every five years, housing advocate Dave Goldenberg is asking the selectmen to create a new Housing Opportunity Commission to bring more urgency to the town’s affordable housing efforts.

“Ridgefield has obligations not just to the state but to its many residents and families who face economic need,” Goldenberg argued in a two-page proposal to the selectmen.

“No one is taking responsibility for affordable housing,” Goldenberg said. “Improved affordable housing is identified as a goal in town (2010 Plan of Conservation and Development). But no one is leading the charge.”

The affordable housing committee proposal was presented to the Board of Selectmen meeting Wednesday night, Oct. 25.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi is supportive of the idea.

“I can’t speak for all the selectmen, but yes, I think it’s important to have an affordable housing committee,” Marconi told The Press Tuesday. “Affordable housing is with us and it’s not going to go away. We will always need an affordability committee.”

The town had an Affordable Housing Committee from 2007 to 2014, but its members resigned en masse after it became clear that the selectmen’s initial plans for the Schlumberger property didn’t include any attempt to use the site to address affordable housing needs. Goldenberg was chairman of that committee, and the first to resign.

“That had to do with Schlumberger. I think we all recognize that,” Marconi said of the resignations.

In the three years since all the original committee members resigned, the selectmen have not sought to appoint a new affordable housing committee.

United Way report

Goldenberg’s presentation for Wednesday night’s meeting is backed up by a 10-page report from the United Way — a 2016 update to its 2014 study of financially struggling households in Connecticut.

In his proposal to the selectmen, Goldenberg cited the United Way study and also what was reported by the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials and National Low Income Housing Coalition.

“The need for affordable housing continues to grow,” he said.

  • “According to the United Way, 13% of Ridgefield households are ‘struggling’ economically. (United Way ALICE Update 2016). That’s more than 1,100 households.
  • “47% of Ridgefield renter households and 1% of owner households spend more than 31% of their income on housing costs (United Way 2016).
  • “In the Danbury market region, the hourly wage required to afford a two bedroom apartment is $26.48 — an annual income of $55,080. The minimum wage in Connecticut is $10.10. (Out of Reach 2017, National Low Income Housing Coalition).
  • “The state population is aging — a third are over 50. The waiting list at Ballard Green is four to five years.
  • ”In 2008, the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials identified a need for 1,087 additional affordable units in Ridgefield. (HVCEO Housing Market Assessment, 2008).
  • “The town continues to add market-rate units without adding additional affordable units, and has made no demands of developers for set-asides or in-lieu contributions.
  • “The Ridgefield town social worker believes 1,200 to 1,300 households are living paycheck to paycheck. Up to 150 visit the monthly pop-up food pantry. 150 apply for state energy assistance.
  • “The earliest 8-30g units (Beechwood Arms) are coming off the list; these and other units need to be protected.”

Zoning and 8-30g

The state’s 8-30g statute represents an attempt to force communities to permit more private-sector affordable housing by giving developers ways to circumvent zoning rules that can push up housing costs.

Under 8-30g, developers may build multifamily projects with no density restrictions so long as, for the first 40 years, 30% of the units are rented at rates qualifying as “affordable” — with 15% at rents within reach of families earning 80% of the state median income and the other 15% targeting families at 60% of the median.

(Connecticut’s median income was $71,000 in 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, so 80% is about $56,800 and 60% is about $42,600 a year. The state rent guidelines are built on an assumption that families should spend no more than 30% of their income on housing.)

The town sought and obtained a four-year moratorium on development projects under 8-30g, and the moratorium is due to expire in the fall of 2018.

During the moratorium, the Planning and Zoning Commission and Assistant Planner Adam Schnell have put together a proposed zoning regulation designed to address affordable housing needs. The proposed “mixed income overlay zone” is scheduled for a public hearing Nov. 21.

The proposed mixed-income regulation would allow developers to build residential projects in most town business zones at a density of 16 units an acre, if 30% are “affordable” by people making 80% of the state median income.

Goldenberg, however, views the Planning and Zoning Commission’s proposal as a defense against the approaching fall 2018 end of the 8-30g moratorium.

“The Planning and Zoning Commission obtained a moratorium under 8-30g in 2014, yet has taken no real action to address the issue,” Goldenberg argued to the selectmen. “Its focus in the area of affordable housing has been, and remains, limiting the impact of 8-30g.”