Affordable housing: Goal remains elusive, and the need continues

Affordable housing may seem a distant goalpost in a town like Ridgefield, where single family homes dominate and 330 houses sold in 2018 had an average price of over $716,000. Even the 69 condominiums that changed hands in Ridgefield last year averaged $309,000.
But town officials remain hopeful that continuing growth can be guided to include some well-located, less-costly housing — an oasis of affordability where seniors, longtime residents who are downsizing, and maybe even the working young can find places to live in Ridgefield
Much of the lower-cost housing built recently has been rental units added as part of developments under the state’s 8-30g statute, which allows developers to ignore most zoning rules if 30% of units are set aside to meet state affordability rules.
New affordable units go quickly, and it seems clear is that there is still need — despite Ridgefield offering a fairly broad mix of housing types for an affluent suburb.
“Basically, ‘affordable’ can have many different definitions to as many people as you speak with,” First Selectmen Rudy Maconi said. “There’s always the 8-30g statute, but we want to look beyond that in terms of the overall housing mix in our community.
“And I do think we have a good mix of housing availability for our community,” he said. “...With Casagmo and Fox Hill, we have many condominiums. And beyond those two, we have facilities that offer — certainly, compared to Ridgefield housing prices — affordable living.”
Casagmo with 307 units and Fox Hill with 287, both built in the 1970s, are by far the town’s largest multifamily developments — and pockets of relative affordability, with two-bedroom units advertised recently at $2,200 in Fox Hill and $2,300 a month in Casagmo, while one-bedroom units were offered at $1,575 in Casagmo and $1,800 in Fox Hill.
An overview table put together by the town planning department in December 2015 listed 1,795 multifamily units built and occupied, under construction, or approved in town. Of the 1,795 units, 339 were listed as “affordable”— a total that included the Ridgefield Housing Authority’s 78 units at Ballard Green, 54 units at the Prospect Ridge Congregate Housing, and 20 units at the Prospect Ridge affordable apartments.
It doesn’t seem to be enough, as waiting lists for the affordable units testify. It’s one of the reasons the selectmen have begun appointing people to the town’s long dormant Affordable Housing Committee. 
“For senior housing, there’s always been a list,” Dave Goldenberg, a former chairman reappointed to the new affordable housing committee told the selectmen’s Feb. 6 meeting. “The list in general has been three to five years — which is a lot.”
“I just got an email today from someone on the list at Ballard Green,” Marconi said. “They’ve been waiting three years.”
“When 8-30 units come on, they’re snapped up right away,” Goldenberg said.
But encouraging more affordable housing is a challenge.
“Because of the cost of land, what drives a lower price is higher density,” Marconi told The Press. “And that’s not always what people want to see.”
Affordable forever?
The situation prompted Steve Zemo — who is a selectman, and also one of the town’s largest affordable housing developers and landlords — to say at a recent Board of Selectmen’s meeting that the state’s 8-30g law should be changed to require that the 30% of units set aside as “affordable” remain that way “in perpetuity” — forever. Currently, the requirement for new 8-30g developments is that the set aside units remain affordable for 40 years.
“This legislation has been tweaked since it was enacted. Originally, the affordable component was mandated for 20 years, then 30, now it’s 40. I always thought for the benefit of a community, that the units should be affordable in perpetuity,” Zemo said.
“The overall community, two or three generations from now, would be better served if these products were earmarked affordable in perpetuity.”
The opinion is one that can be debated, he admits.
“Perpetuity’s a long time,” he said.
“Forty years goes by — granted, that’s a long time, too ... But two generations from now, they suddenly don’t have the benefit of those units, because those units rise to market,” Zemo said.
It’s an unexpected position for someone who owns numerous units that would otherwise, eventually, be eligible to move from “affordable” rents to market rate.
“I’m probably the only person in the state who does this stuff who would say that,” Zemo said of his “in perpetuity” observation.
“It’s not good for the development community,” he said, “but it’s good for the general community.”
Filling a need
Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti is supportive — although changes to the 8-30g statute are up to the state legislature, not the local P&Z commission. 
“Affordable in perpetuity is an interesting concept and not a bad idea,” Mucchetti said. “8-30g projects are the only applications the PZC reviews that are permitted by state law to circumvent local zoning regulations.”
The 8-30g statute allows developers to ignore most zoning regulations, and if their plans are turned down by the local Planning and Zoning Commission and the developers appeal, the case goes to a special housing court where the burden of proof is on the commission — not, as is usual, on the applicant bringing the appeal.
Towns are exempt from 8-30g applications if 10% of all housing units in the town meet the state affordability requirements. It’s a difficult goal — for Ridgefield, with some 9,000 households, 10% would mean 900 affordable housing units and the town has about 250 — with 148 of those Town Housing Authority units at Ballard Green and Prospect Ridge. If older units are reverting to market rate, as is happening with some in Ridgefield, getting to 10% looks even tougher.
“Remaining affordable in perpetuity would benefit the town in complying with the state's mandated 10% goal without risk of losing affordable unit points,” Muchetti said.
Mucchetti thinks 8-30g has its positive side.
“I'm not sure what the original intent of the statute was when the legislature passed it, but affordable units do fill a need in town,” she said. “Ridgefield is an expensive town to live in and we hear from those who have built and own 8-30g properties that the units are rented very quickly, often before the buildings have been completed.”
The commission created its own avenue to affordable developments that it hopes builders will pursue.
“In 2018, the PZC developed and adopted an affordable housing regulation to incentivize affordable housing in the business zones,” Mucchetti said. “We’ve had one application come through under the overlay zone as well as those than were submitted under 8-30g. Daniel Robinson, the town’s assistant planner, is also preparing a five-year affordable housing plan, which was started last year by Adam Schnell, the previous planner.”
What’s affordable?
Rental rates vary, even within the state’s affordable guidelines.
One landlord with government-assisted affordable units in town said gross rents range from $900 a month for one-bedroom and $1,100 a month for two-bedroom units.
Under 8-30g, the requirement is for 30% of the units to be affordable under state guidelines, and the other 70% can be market rate. A 20-unit 8-30g project would be required to have six affordable units — the 30%. Half of those — three of the six — would be required to be affordable for families at 80% of the state median income for families their size, and the other three would have to be affordable to families with incomes at 60% of the state median.
For units to qualify as affordable for families at the 60% and 80% of median income levels, they’d have to spend no more than 30% of their income on rent and utilities. 
Offering ballpark figures, Zemo said a two-bedroom unit might have to rent for about $1,250 a month to meet the 60% of median income requirement, and $1,650 for 80% of state median. 
Market rate rents for similar units might be about $2,400, he said.
“In general it’s probably 35% to 45% less than the market rate apartments,” he said.
“If the goal is development of housing which includes affordable housing options, then I think they almost have it right,” Zemo said. “...They could make it better if they changed the length to in perpetuity.”
Need hasn’t changed 
Danbury-based developer Mark Nolan built the 25-unit Halpin Court project on the corner of Prospect Ridge and Halpin Lane 30 years ago — not under 8-30g, but using the town’s multifamily zone and a Department of Agriculture rural rental assistance program.
Nolan recently asked Marconi if he’d be interested in talking about the future of the property.
“We’re sort of figuring out our options,” Nolan said.
“The demand for affordable housing hasn’t changed since the place was built in 1988,” he said.
Town Social Services Director Tony Phillips recommends people to Halpin Court — or, to its waiting lists. 
“I get emails all the time, people say ‘Tony told me to call you because I’m looking for an apartment,’” Nolan said.
“There’s 67 people on the two-bedroom list, and 36 people on the one-bedroom list, with applications going back to 2014. So, people that applied in 2014, July, haven’t gotten an apartment.”
People have been waiting even longer for the development’s units for the handicapped, he said.
“People don’t realize that aging seniors, dwindling assets, your interest income from assets is not producing the income it used to,” Nolan said. “The economy is such that seniors are on a very limited, fixed income...
“Being in a more expensive community like Ridgefield — and Danbury’s not too far behind — makes it very difficult and they have to relocate or go without, sometimes, essential services,” he said.
“The demand for the affordable rentals are just beyond capacity,” Nolan said.
“Anything the towns can do to enhance affordable rental opportunities is good.”