Moratorium ends: How much affordable housing is coming?

Ridgefield’s respite from affordable housing projects may be over.

The four-year moratorium on applications under the state’s 8-30g affordable housing statute — a law giving developers a way to circumvent zoning restrictions — ended Sunday, Oct. 7.

A tidal wave of 8-30g affordable housing applications was feared — a speaker at a recent hearing on the sewer plant upgrade said he’d heard 19 new affordable applications were coming in.

But the planning and zoning office has not been swamped. At least, not yet.

“We currently have three pending 8-30g Affordable Housing applications,” Planning and Zoning Director Richard Baldelli told The Press Tuesday, Oct. 2.

The 8-30g applications include 233 Danbury Road, 30-units of age-restricted affordable housing proposed on a little over three acres across Route 35 from Fox Hill condominiums, backing up to Founders Hall.

The developer, CGP at Danbury Road LLC, consists of Marty Handshy, Jay Metcalfe and Dennis Stone — the Charter Group Partners who built 77 Sunset Lane, the 54-unit project on former Schlumberger land purchased from the town.

The other two are Steve Zemo’s 62 Prospect Ridge and 84 Governor Street projects.

They are age-restricted, 55-and-older apartment buildings, similar in concept and design to two buildings Zemo developed in recent years at the same site — the corner of Governor Street and Prospect Ridge Road. The buildings would add 36 new rental units, doubling the size of the residential complex on that corner from 36 units in two buildings to 72 units in four buildings.

At least one more 8-30g application is expected.

“We anticipate the submission of an 8-30g three-lot subdivision in the reasonably near future,” Baldelli said Tuesday.

Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Rebecca Mucchetti said she hasn’t heard of any other projects.

“We haven't had any pre-submission discussions for affordable projects, or any requests for any, since 233 Danbury Road came in last spring,” she said, “so I don't have the sense that there are projects waiting for the moratorium to expire to submit applications.”

First Selectman Rudy Marconi agreed — for now.

“No massive onslaught of applications, no,” he said.

Zone busting

The state’s 8-30g affordable housing law was designed to open up “exclusionary” suburbs where zoning for single-family homes on large two- or three-acre lots kept house prices high and poor people out.

The law gave developers of affordable projects that met state criteria a means of circumventing most zoning rules — density regulations, setback distances, building heights.

Towns that cherished the illusion of a New England village look — like Ridgefield — feared urbanization by developers who, freed from zoning rules, could now jam multifamily affordable projects onto postage stamp parcels.

The law was passed in 1990 but years passed before local developers really started taking advantage of it.

But use of 8-30g picked up in Ridgefield after the economic meltdown and housing crash of 2007-08 scrambled the economics of developers’ more-established approach of building high-end houses.

The stream of affordable housing applications seemed to go from a trickle to a deluge. Ridgefield approved 18 projects with 570 residential units under 8-30g, half of them in the two-year period from 2012 to 2014 when the moratorium was granted by the state.

The argument for the moratorium was that the town needed time to develop policies that could address affordable housing needs in a more orderly manner than simply allowing developers to dodge zoning laws by including 30% affordable units.

The Planning and Zoning Commission (PZC) worked for three and half years on an alternative to 8-30g that would be attractive to developers, but retain some town controls.

“The PZC adopted an affordable overlay for the business zones that was effective January 14, 2018,” the commission’s chairwoman, Mucchetti, said. “It’s the Mixed-Use Overlay Zone — Section 5.7. It was established to encourage socioeconomic diversity, to provide low- to moderate-income households access to affordable housing through incentivizing new construction or renovation of existing buildings for mixed-income, mixed-use housing development in the B-1, B-2, B-3 and Neighborhood Business Zones.”

Since then, she said, the commission has had one application under the Mixed-Use Overlay Zone — a Zemo project on Old Quarry Road. The project has 16 apartments, above first-floor commercial storage facilities.

The overlay zone

The commission’s overlay zone allows up to 16 units per acre — double the maximum density allowed in the town’s traditional multifamily zone — and applies in non-corporate business zones on Danbury Road, in Branchville, and around the intersection of Routes 35 and 7.

The 16-units-per-acre overlay zone doesn’t apply in the Central Business District that covers the Main Street commercial area, or in any residential zones.

The commission spoke to local developers who’d used 8-30g to get thoughts on how they could make the overlay zone competitive with a state law that allows builders to ignore almost all zoning rules.

One approach involved the rates charged for affordable units.

To qualify as an 8-30g project, the state requires that 30% of the residential units meet affordability guidelines — with the 30% split between 15% affordable by people with incomes at 60% of the state median income, and 15% affordable for incomes at 80% of the state median.

The remaining 70% of the units can go at market rate.

To make its new overlay zone attractive to developers, the commission decided to eliminate the requirement that half the affordable units be rented to people at 60% of the state median income, and allow all of them to be market at the higher 80% of median income level.

An analysis done by The Press in 2016 showed that for a one-bedroom unit in 2016, the state median income calculations would be based on an income of $87,800 a year, and the family paying 30% of that toward housing. Under the formula, the rents are $987 a month at the 60% guideline, and $1,317 a month for units rented to families with incomes at 80% of the state median.

Former assistant planner Adam Schnell did an analysis of the overlay regulation that compared the rentals brought in under different scenarios over time.

For a one-bedroom unit deemed affordable by people at 60% of the state median income, monthly rent would be $852, he said, compared to $1,182 for units meeting the guidelines for 80%. That difference of $330 a month would work out to $3,960 a year, for each one-bedroom unit. That amounts to $19,800 over five years, $39,600 per unit over 10 years, or $118,800 over 30 years.

“Adam did an analysis of the 60% versus 80% over the 30-year period,” Mucchetti said, “and determined that there was a significant financial incentive using the Mixed-Use Overlay zone.”

Zemo, who is a selectman as well as a land developer, thought it might be too early to judge what the return of 8-30g will mean.

“It’s early in the process,” he said. “... I have no doubt others will follow in the business zones as tenants move and properties trade.”

Zemo also pointed to the positive aspects of more affordable housing.

“As for the other 8-30g projects, they too will provide additional housing options for the community,” he said. “Building age-restricted, 55-and-over housing will allow us to keep our seniors here, add taxes and vitality to our community mix.”