Commission's affordable housing task: Address the need but protect the town

The moratorium will end. Affordable housing will be back.

To get ready, the Planning and Zoning Commission has been working on a regulation that could provide a town-approved path to the development of affordable housing in most of the town’s business zones — though not in the Main Street area’s Central Business District.

It’s about a year and a half to the day — Oct. 7, 2018 — when the town’s four-year moratorium on affordable housing applications under the state’s 8-30g statute will be over.

Land developers will again be able to put forward “affordable housing” projects under state statute 8-30g that ignore virtually all of the town’s carefully crafted zoning regulations.

Forget limits on housing density, building height, setback distances, or parking and landscaping rules. For projects with 30% of proposed housing units qualifying as “affordable” under state guidelines, 8-30g allows a developer to ignore zoning restrictions, submit plans for a review, and march through the approval process.

If they’re turned down on an 8-30g affordable housing application, developers may appeal to a state housing court where the “burden of proof” is on the town to show the project was rejected in order to protect public interests that “clearly outweigh the need for affordable housing.”

Dating back to 1989, the state’s 8-30g law was designed to encourage more affordable housing by opening up wealthy suburbs where “exclusionary zoning” for single-family homes on large lots had kept most poor people out.

By giving developers a way to circumvent zoning restrictions, 8-30g has long been seen as threatening towns like Ridgefield that cherish a New England village sensibility. Residents and officials feared quaint neighborhoods could be urbanized by developers who, unconstrained by zoning, would jam big apartment buildings onto small lots.

Towns or cities where 10% or more of housing qualifies as “affordable” under state guidelines — 31 of the state’s 169 municipalities, according to the state Department of Housing — are exempt from the law’s developer-friendly appeals procedures.

According to the state, Ridgefield has 9,420 housing units, and 256, or 2.72%, qualify as affordable under the state guidelines.

While the town did build enough affordable units to earn the four-year moratorium that ends in 2018, Ridgefield is a long way from exempt.

Onslaught

Although the law wasn’t used that much at first, many Ridgefield officials eventually came to feel there was an onslaught of affordable housing applications. The town approved 18 projects with 569 residential units under 8-30g, though not all have been built. Nine of 18 were approved between 2012 and the moratorium’s 2014 start.

“We’re trying to determine how to address what we understand is a true need in town for affordable housing,” said Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti. “The objectives are to address the need and preserve the character of the community.”

It’s not a simple task.

First Selectman Rudy Marconi said economic factors dating back to 2008 contributed to the affordable housing boomlet.

“The real estate market decline for single-family homes during the recession, in part spurred by the tighter banking regulations, etc., added to the demand for apartments,” Marconi said. “Seeing little demand, if any, for single-family homes, the building industry turned to apartments. Hence the reason for apartment building applications.”

Dave Goldenberg resigned as chairman of the town’s Affordable Housing Committee in August 2014, triggering resignations by all the committee’s other members.

The resignations reflected a changing outlook, Goldenberg said. Once town officials sought to encourage affordable housing. By 2014, many were more interested in fighting it.

“There were a lot of issues,” Goldenberg said. “It was just clear that the Board of Selectmen at that time was not interested in supporting affordable housing, so there was no point in having a committee.”

The Affordable Housing Committee was advisory to the selectmen, and the board didn’t refill it.

Like Marconi, Goldenberg saw economic trends fueling the surge in affordable housing applications, which prompted the town’s moratorium.

“As the economy changed, it made projects under 8-30g more economically desirable for developers, and we had a spate of developments,” Goldenberg said. “And I think some of the ways those were presented turned off townspeople, which turned off elected officials.”

Incentives

To prepare for Oct. 7, 2018, the zoners have been meeting regularly on affordable housing for over two years — often dedicating one meeting a month to the subject, with nothing else on the agenda.

The commission’s focus has settled on creating a new regulation that might entice developers to build under the zoning rules, rather than circumventing them with 8-30g.

“We’re trying to find something that would be appealing enough to encourage collaboration with the town,” Mucchetti said.

The commission and its staff are working on a regulation that would apply not in residential areas but in most of the town’s business zones — with the notable exception of the Central Business District (or “CBD”) zone that governs the village commercial area on both sides of Main Street, between Governor and Prospect.

The concept is to have ground-floor commercial tenants with affordable housing in apartments above. The commission hopes to build in incentives that would give developers reason to work under the new rule, even when the moratorium is lifted and 8-30g offers a way around zoning standards that can’t be tied directly to public “health and safety.”

One “incentive” is a relatively high permitted density — maybe 15 units an acre.

That’s similar to densities on 8-30g projects approved before the moratorium.

Steve Zemo’s Governor House behind the police station is 16 units on 1.15 acres, a density of 13.9 units an acre. Patrick Downend’s Kendall Court at 613 Main Street has nine units on just under half an acre, for 18.1 units per acre. Danny LeTourneau’s 28 Gilbert Street project has eight units on a little over a third of an acre, a density of 23.9 units per acre.

“We already have that density in town,” Mucchetti said.

Another potential incentive concerns rental rates. Under 8-30g, 30% of the units in a development have to be “affordable.” Of those, half — 15% of all units in the project — have to be affordable by a family earning 60% of the state’s median income, while the remaining affordable units are targeted to families at 80% of state median income.

An incentive the commission has explored would allow the higher 80% guideline apply to all a project’s affordable units — providing higher rents.

Feedback

Commissioners swapped ideas with developers who’d built in town using 8-30g — Michael Eppoliti, Downend and Zemo.

Eppoliti, who has two 8-30g projects in town, saw potential in the commission’s idea of allowing all “affordable units” in a project to be priced for rental by families earning 80% of the state’s median income, rather than half at 80% and half at at 60%.

For a one-bedroom unit in 2016, he said, the calculations were based on a state median income of $87,800 a year. The formula assumes a family would pay 30% of their income toward housing. The formula yields rents of $987 a month at 60% of median income, but $1,317 a month at 80%.

“Although I think it’s a difficult problem to solve, a regulation that could reduce a developer’s costs and increase revenues could be something worth exploring,” Eppoliti said. “As a developer, I would always like to take the path of least resistance and would prefer to work under local regulations if at all possible.”

Zemo, who also built two 8-30g projects on Governor Street and Danbury Road, said a well-designed affordable housing regulation must meet trends like an “aging population who want or need to rent” and the demand for “workforce housing.”

“Mixing residential and commercial has always proven to add vitality to a site while providing the residents with proximity to shops, services and sidewalks,” Zemo said.

The commission wants to be sure all affordable units built under any new rules will count toward the state threshold that says if 10% or more of a town’s housing units qualify as affordable, 8-30g’s developer-friendly appeals process doesn’t apply.

“We’re always trying to work toward the state’s goal of 10%,” Mucchetti said. “We don’t think we’re going to get there, but we want to make sure if we build it that it counts.”

Commission member Joseph Fossi, a builder himself, said a new regulation offering a workable path to approval would get it a look from developers — even if it addressed town aesthetic concerns with density limits, height and setback regulations, rules requiring landscaped areas in front with parking behind.

“We’re just trying to see if there’s some matrix that can work,” Fossi said. “Think about having two sets of rules and you can sit down and say, ‘Which one do I want to play by?’ ”

Before the moratorium started in October 2014, Fossi said, the town planning staff and commission tried to work with developers using 8-30g — a collaborative effort to design projects that fit reasonably into Ridgefield.

“We’ve been lucky so far,” Fossi said. “But you get some big bad developer from out of town, they could say, ‘We’re going to build a 12-story building, we’re going to go property line to property line.’”

So, there’s real benefit in getting affordable housing developers to work under town regulations, rather than using 8-30g and, essentially, throwing the zoning rulebook out.

“It makes sense to craft something that speaks to the need of affordable housing — because we certainly believe there’s a need of it — yet helps protect the character,” Fossi said “…I think I can speak for the general sentiment of the commission and say that’s what we’re looking to try to do.

“It’s a complicated issue,” he added. “It’s difficult. But it’s something we have to try to work with — we can’t change it.”