Affordable housing: Should the town have an agency addressing the problem?
Lovely, leafy, pricey Ridgefield remains a town where affordable housing is hard to come by. Should the town have an agency addressing the problem?
Three years after the town’s Affordable Housing Committee ended in a flurry of resignations, the selectmen are considering a relaunch — and the discussion’s scheduled to resume next Wednesday, Nov. 29.
“The need for affordable housing and housing diversity continues to grow,” Dave Goldenberg told the selectmen. “I think our friends from the Economic Development Commission will tell you a lack of affordable housing is a constraint to business growth.”
Goldenberg, who chaired the Affordable Housing Committee most of its seven years, proposed creating a new Housing Opportunity Commission to the selectmen’s Oct. 25 meeting. After considerable back and forth, the board agreed to revisit the issue after Thanksgiving.
Steps the previous committee helped facilitate included:
- Construction of The Meadows affordable family units at the Housing Authority’s Prospect Ridge site.
- Sunrise Cottage, the group home for people with disabilities, built on Sunset Lane.
- Revision of town accessory apartment regulations, a collaboration between the committee, attorney Bob Jewell, and the Planning and Zoning Commission.
- Organizing a “townwide affordable housing summit” meeting.
“We got quite a lot done,” Goldenberg said.
He offered evidence of a continuing need for affordable housing.
“About 13% of Ridgefield households are struggling,” he said. “That’s 1,100 households.”
He pointed to a 2016 United Way study of “ALICE” (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) households.
“The working poor,” Goldenberg said.
He also cited a 2008 study by the regional planning agency Ridgefield belongs to — formerly the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials (HVCEO), now the Western Connecticut Council of Governments.
“The HVCEO study of 2008 found a need for 1,000 units,” Goldenberg said.
And it’s getting worse.
“We’ve added market-rate units without adding affordable units — that’s backsliding,” Goldenberg said.
The selectmen weren’t sold.
“The Planning and Zoning Commission is starting to look at affordable housing pretty seriously,” said Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.
As an incentive to developers to build more affordable housing, the commission is working on a “mixed use overlay zone” which would allow 16 units an acre of apartments, over ground floor commercial space, in most of the town’s business zones. A public hearing was scheduled to open Tuesday night, Nov. 21.
Goldenberg argued the commission was defending against the state’s statute 8-30g, which allows developers to circumvent zoning rules when they are building projects with at least 30% of apartments “affordable.” The town has a four-year moratorium on 8-30g applications, but that ends in October 2018.
“Their proposal is focused on limiting the impact of 8-30g,” Goldenberg said.
“You’ve been leading this charge quite a while now. What’s your vision?” Selectman Bob Hebert asked. “How many more units do we need to build?”
The previous committee had pushed for more affordable housing on Prospect Ridge.
“We proposed 50 to 100 units of mixed-income housing,” Goldenberg said. “It met pretty heavy resistance.”
“I think there were some funding concerns,” said Kozlark.
Hebert, a former chairman of the town’s Housing Authority, recalled financial problems plaguing the Meadows project on Prospect Ridge.
“I’ve got to tell you, if the plan is to put up more Meadows-type housing, I want to have a seat at that table,” Hebert said. “The intentions were great, but …”
Selectman Steve Zemo, a developer, has built three affordable projects in town under the state’s 8-30g law: Beechtree Manor at 100 Danbury Road, and two buildings on Governor Street, behind the police station.
He wondered how the town would finance more affordable housing.
“Are we supposed to float bonds?” he said.
“It’s such a challenge. And it’s almost insatiable, the need for affordable housing,” Zemo said. “What are we supposed to do with all these good intentions and hard work?”
Hebert asked what types of affordable housing the town needs.
“It’s all types,” Goldenberg said. “We need moderate-income and we need low-income.”
State guidelines used in 8-30g applications define two levels of “affordable” — meaning roughly 30% of a family’s income goes to housing cost — for people at 80% and 60% of the state’s median income.
“We need housing diversity,” Goldenberg said. “We need more moderate-cost housing for seniors … family housing at the 60% level and the 80% level and possibly a lower level. The need is across the board, and it’s demonstrated.”
Goldenberg said a new commission could fight the perception that affordable housing is mostly something developers use, under the state law, to force towns to accept higher-density projects.
“8-30g creates a lot of ill will,” he said. “Our goal is to work with the Planning and Zoning Commission.”
Hebert wondered about senior citizens’ need for increasing levels of care.
“Do we need more facilities like Laurel Ridge and Ridgefield Crossings?” he asked.
Town housing for seniors, Ballard Green and the Prospect Ridge congregate housing, has waiting lists.
“I have a friend who keeps calling and saying, ‘When am I going hear? It’s been four years,’” First Selectman Rudy Marconi said.
The selectmen wondered about the previous committee’s mass resignations — Goldenberg’s was the first — after affordable housing wasn’t included in town plans for the Schlumberger property.
“I’d like to do my own due diligence,” said Kozlark.
“The vision, the goals,” asked Hebert. “What would be the goals for the first one, two, three years?”
“The first step of this group would be to create a study and a plan,” Goldenberg said.
“My point of view is to look at our need, and address it.”