Mixed-income overlay zone: Town considers new affordable housing rule
With a little over a year left of the moratorium against affordable housing projects under the state’s 8-30g rule, the town has put together an affordable housing regulation that would allow residential developments of up to 16 units an acre in most of the town’s business zones.
The new “mixed-income overlay zone” was accepted for consideration by the Planning and Zoning Commission Tuesday and scheduled for a Nov. 21 public hearing. It may still review and tweak the language.
“We’re charged with coming up with an affordable housing document that doesn’t decimate the Town of Ridgefield,” Commissioner John Katz said. “The best we can do is try to be creative…”
Assistant Town Planner Adam Schnell worked on the proposed regulation for a year and half, following up on three years’ of discussion by the commission.
“This has been the culmination of a few years worth of dedication, analyzation, and trying to fit the need for affordable housing with the needs of local residents,” Schnell said. “Our intentions are to promote diversification of local housing options and preserving the town’s character.”
As an “overlay zone” there wouldn’t be a specific area where the rule, if adopted, would apply — instead, developers could propose that they be allowed to use the regulation on specific sites in most of the town’s business districts and the commission would judge the merits of the proposed location after a public hearing.
“The business districts are better suited to handle the density, and they’re supported by walkability and access to local accommodations,” Schnell said. “It has the ability for higher density because it has public sewer and water. Also, business districts are located on main corridors suitable to higher traffic and better access to public transportation.”
Here in town
The affordable housing rule could apply, contingent upon commission approval, in the B-1, B-2, B-3 business zones and also the neighborhood business zone. These area are along Danbury Road sections of Route 35 and Route 7, and in Branchville.
Commercial zones that are notable exceptions — where the overlay zone couldn’t be used to build affordable housing — include the Central Business District that governs the Main Street commercial area and the corporate development districts.
The proposed rule is part of the town’s unfolding response to the Section 8-30g of the state statutes.
Under 8-30g developers can 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 a year in 2015, the most recent year of 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 families should spend no more than about 30% of their income on housing cost.)
Ridgefield is currently under a moratorium on affordable housing applications under the state’s 8-30g regulation, but the four-year moratorium ends Oct. 7, 2018.
After that date developers using 8-30g can propose building ‘30% affordable’ housing projects anywhere in town, with no density restrictions, and the commission would have very limited legal grounds on which to deny them.
“We have a moratorium and part of the moratorium is for the municipality to look at and analyze how to better meet affordable housing needs,” Schnell said.
The proposed regulation would not do away with 8-30g applications, but it would provide an alternative path for developers willing to work under commission oversight.
In addition to offering 16-units an acre — a higher density than the roughly 12 units an acre average of several projects done in town under 8-30g, before the moratorium — the regulation has some “incentives” to try to get developers to work under the town rule.
Probably the most significant incentive is that the commission would allow developers to collect higher rents on half the affordable units.
Both the town and state rules stipulate 30% of units must be affordable for 40 years. But the town regulation would allow the entire 30% to rented at 80% of the state’s median income — while the state’s 8-30g rule splits the 30% into 15% rented at 80% of state median income and 15% rented at the lesser 60% of state median.
Using the 2015 state median income of $79,000 a year, the 80% income level is $63,200. And allocating 30% of that for housing cost would yield 18,960 a year or $1,580 a month.
The lower 60% of state median income is $47,400, and 30% housing cost would be $14,220 or $1,185 a month.
Over 40 years that $395 a month difference can be a significant, especially if there are a number of units where the income guideline moves from the 60% to 80% of state median.
The proposed town regulation would require “architectural review” by the commission, with guidelines that “enhance the character and streetscape” by putting buildings be near the front of properties, with parking behind, and encouraging use of “elements and materials that reflect the New England Classical and New England Village character.”
“Anyone can build anywhere they want under 8-30g,” Schnell said. “8-30g still stands. What we’re trying to do is create a regulation where there’s enough incentives to use our regulation rather than 8-30g.
“This regulation puts the commission back in control of affordable housing development,” Schnell said.