Greenwich United Way on Thursday hosted a Zoom panel on a topic garnering headlines lately – affordable housing.
On the Zoom call, Sean Ghio, policy director at Partnership for Strong Communities, an organization based in Hartford that seeks to end homelessness in Connecticut and increase affordable housing, was joined by Greenwich P&Z chair Margarita Alban and town planner Katie DeLuca.
On its website Ghio’s organization offers a housing profile for every town in Connecticut.
Sean Ghio from Partnership for Strong Communities out of Hartford said when renters spend less than 30% of household income on housing, it is considered affordable.
Households that spend more than 1/3 of income on housing are considered “cost burdened.”
Those who spend more than 1/2 their income on housing are “severely cost burdened.”
In Connecticut, almost half of renter households spend more than 30% of their income on housing.
A quarter of that group – about 100,000 households – spend more than half their income on housing.
“Those folks are predominantly almost exclusively extremely low income households,” Ghio said. “If we talk about who some of those folks are – households headed by black African-Americans, 31% of those households are spending more than 1/2 their income on rent and utilities.”
Ghio cited the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) report that indicated 29% of ALICE households in Greenwich are not earning enough to meet basic household budget requirements.
It is possible to drill down on everything from the number of single family houses, (Greenwich has 15,473 or 63.8%), to the number of mobile homes (54).
The profiles also indicates the number of Affordable housing units as defined by the State. Greenwich has 1,371 units or 5.3% out of the 10% required under 8-30g, the state Affordable housing statute. Towns that aren’t in compliance lose their zoning control when a multi-family development is proposed that includes Affordable units, with the rare exception of health and safety.
Under 8-30g, a developer in a town that has not achieved 10% can build multi family housing with a portion of units designated Affordable and be exempt from local zoning regulations.
Though 8-30g has been on the books since the late 80s, there has been recent momentum in new applications in Greenwich, and residents have expressed their opposition during public hearings, largely to no avail.
There are 31 communities in Connecticut that have achieved the required 10% – the closest being Stamford, which has 15.5% Affordable.
And while the forum did not focus on 8-30g it was noted that Greenwich would have to add about 1,200 units to meet the State requirement.
None of this may be news to residents in Greenwich.
What is news is that there may be increased consequences for lack of compliance. And lack of compliance could soon cost Greenwich property owners in more ways than one.
Senate Bill 172 would establish a state-wide tax on commercial and residential property to encourage Affordable housing as defined by 8-30g. The task has a “sliding scale” which reflects how far a town is from the required 10%.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 171, a bill proposed by Senator Martin Looney, is being referred to as a “mansion tax” and targets homes valued at more than $430,000. It would hit Greenwich hard, since majority of single family homes are mansions according to this definition.
The owner of a house worth $1 million would pay an additional $400 annually. The proposal would redistribute the money back to cities and towns that are struggling.
On a separate note, this week the First Selectman’s proposed budget would result in an increase in property tax of $203 on a home valued at $1 million.
A coalition called DeSegregate CT out of Hartford has been advocating a platform in which municipalities cede local zoning control to the State.
DeSegregate CT, founded by Sara Bronin, an architect, attorney, law professor, former Hartford P&Z chair and wife of the Mayor of Hartford, has talked about her group’s desire to make it “as of right” to build 2- to 4-family houses within .5 miles of train stations, while eliminating parking requirements.
Greenwich has four train stations. Let that sink in.
DeSegregate CT’s assumption is that making more multi-family housing “as of right” would lead to more affordable housing, and in turn decrease segregation.
Given the voracious appetite for luxury multi-family housing in Greenwich, the result might instead be increased density, traffic and burdens on infrastructure including schools, sewers and roads.
A third bill was introduced Friday, Jan 29.
DeSegregate CT’s platform was the basis for SB 804, an Act Concerning Inclusion in Certain Communities.
The bill was proposed by Senator Saud Anwar, a Democrat representing the 3rd District, which includes the towns of East Hartford, South Windsor, East Windsor and Ellington.
Yet a fourth bill has to do with allowing greater density near train stations. Senator Martin Looney proposed SB 554, An Act Concerning Municipal Zoning and Public Transit would require towns to permit a greater density of housing within a 1/2 mile of a public transit station than otherwise permitted by the town.
Mr. Ghio explained that Connecticut maintains a list of “Affordable” housing, which in addition to public housing includes deed restricted housing, and both Section 8 voucher and RAPs (Rental Assistance Program), both of which assist low income families afford housing in the private market. Also, homeowners with below market mortgages for a single family home from the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority count toward the 10% Affordable requirement.
What is not included on the list is housing that is considered affordable with a small “a.”
In Greenwich, NOAH, or naturally occurring affordable housing, includes units private schools offer to teachers, units that country clubs offer to workers and housing Greenwich Hospital provides to employees.
Mr. Ghio said Greenwich, with 5.3% “Affordable,” is in a slightly more enviable position than Darien with just 3.5%, or New Canaan with just 2.9%.
“Your numbers are actually higher than a lot of your neighbors,” he said.
Mr. Ghio also talked about the aging housing stock across the state.
“Across the state housing is very old,” he said. “That means higher income, and middle income people are competing for lower quality apartments.”
Ghio said that according to the Public and Affordable Housing Research Corporation (PAHRC), there are 5,000 Affordable housing units receiving federal subsidies that are at risk of falling out of stock, either through expiring subsidies, deed restrictions or such poor conditions that they won’t remain livable.
“In Greenwich PAHRC says you have 50 units in that position,” he said.
Emphasizing Housing Diversity
Though Greenwich has hovered around only 5% Affordable housing, the Town’s P&Z director Katie DeLuca said the town has historically worked to achieve housing diversity.
“We have had zoning regulations back to the 1980s for accessory apartments and options … such as planned elderly housing like Hill House on Riverside Ave. We have planned residential zones. That’s how we got Lyon Farm and Greenwich Gables.”
“We have close to 3,000 condo units,” she added. “We are condo strong.”
DeLuca said there were other options to create units than would not otherwise be permitted, including conservation zones where land is set aside in turn for additional units. Also, the option of a Historic Overlay gives incentives for preserving historic homes.
“We try to keep ourselves a small town. We don’t like to be called a city. We don’t want a lot of density. Having said that, we are ‘full.’ We don’t have a lot of vacant land. We’re not like Westport or Darien who can do a lot of interesting things to attract affordable housing.”
“And we’re certainly not like Stamford or Port Chester (NY) who do want density.”
DeLuca said the town has made it a priority since the 1980s to try to create “moderate income” or “workforce housing.”
To qualify for workforce housing in Greenwich, a resident can make no more than $98,000 a year, versus a max income of $55,000 to qualify for an Affordable unit.
Katie DeLuca Greenwich Planning & Zoning director
DeLuca said 60% of Town employees and 60% of Board of Education employees live outside the community.
She said the starting salary for a teacher is $56,000, $79,000 for a police officer and $60,000 for a fire fighter.
She noted that to qualify for an Affordable unit, the salary cap is $55,832.
“What do you do when our starting salaries for employees exceeds that?” she asked.
“We came up with our own income limit for (workforce) housing and based it off the average town employee’s salary,” she said. “We made a big change to (workforce housing) regs 5-6 years ago and we saw an influx of proposals, and have 20 units approved (not built yet). So you see the regulation change worked.”
In Greenwich a 1BR unit under moderate/workforce income rents for $1,649 month, whereas under the State Affordable guidelines it would go for $1,386.
Alban acknowledged Greenwich is failing to meet its existing need within the community and that most of the existing Affordable housing is provided by the housing authority.
“We think affordable housing should be more mixed into the community, with smaller units, so it is seamless,” she said.
Alban talked about balancing the need for additional affordable housing with demands on infrastructure, including public schools, sewers and the road network.
“Just to meet the State requirement, we’d need to add another 1,200 units of affordable housing,” she said.
“The overall plan is to accept some level of density because you need to have our two primary builders of Affordable housing – the housing authority and the private sector,” Alban said.
“It’s difficult because of the cost of our real estate. Our Affordable Housing Task Force is working with developers and attorneys. The gap in is the money. We have to figure out how to cross that bridge. There isn’t state money coming. We’re low in the queue.”
Margarita Alban, Planning & Zoning Commission chair
Toward that end Alban said two initiatives were under way. One is to seek a greater amount of money for the housing authority who are willing to oversee new construction of Affordable housing.
“We’ve asked the Board of Estimate and Taxation if they would consider the town lending money to the housing authority. It’s a cost free idea and it helps the housing authority move forward.”
Second, Alban said the task force was looking at the example of New Canaan where there is a fee for building permits to create a trust fund for Affordable housing.
In addition to the fees the Town collects, people are able to donate to the fund.
Alban said there were other ideas being considered to expand the concept of accessory units.
“Our accessory units are restricted to affordable and seniors,” Alban said, adding, “The commission is talking about opening that up so you can have an accessory unit for anybody. There are trade offs though. They’ll go market rate if you don’t restrict them.”
“We’ve talked about at least opening it up so you can create units for the disabled,” she added.
Mr. Ghio suggested housing vouchers offered a way to provide affordable rentals without new construction.
“It’s using existing units, not new construction, and there are other incremental ways such as ADUs, accessory apartments, or even creating internal accessory apartments from larger single family homes that won’t even impact the footprint of town in terms of what you see from the outside,” Ghio said.
“We don’t want to think we need 1,000 units – so that is X number of apartment buildings,” he said. “There’s a lot of ways to skin the cat.”
“We don’t want to glue ourselves to the 10% that the State mandates. You have to do what’s right for your town,” Alban said.
“We are proposing an inclusionary zoning regulation that will require new multi family developments to set aside 20% of their units as Affordable, but that percentage might change. We think this is key. We’re giving incentives to developers, and we are discussing that with them.”
Alban said anyone interested was invited to attend Greenwich’s affordable housing task force meetings. The meetings are posted on the Town’s website.
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