A newly appointed committee charged with identifying properties in New Canaan where affordable housing units could be built, among other responsibilities, on Monday voted to elect a seasoned and widely respected municipal volunteer as its chair.
At its first meeting, members of the Affordable Housing Committee voted 9-0 to elect former Planning & Zoning Commission chair John Goodwin to lead the group.
In nominating him, Committee member Krista Neilson said that Goodwin’s time on P&Z “gives him a lot of insight into the work that we’re going to be doing here.”
“He sat in on approving Canaan Parish and Millport, I’m sure he probably dodged some 8-30g applications that didn’t come to us,” Neilson said during the meeting, held at Town Hall and via videoconference.
She continued: “So he’s seen the whole gamut, at least, of how it comes to the town. And also, I think he has great experience being the chair of the Planning & Zoning Commission, which—those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of attending our meetings, can be quite long, quite contentious. I feel if you can chair that, you can chair most anything. At the Planning & Zoning Commission, I always found John to be very diplomatic in his style. He’s open to everybody. He’s really there to build consensus and facilitate the group moving forward. I also really appreciate that he’s a great listener. He doesn’t come with his mind made up. He wants to hear not only what the Commission has to say, but also the members of the public. And I think since we have so much learning to do together, that will be a great service. And then last but not least, he’s just always prepared. I mean he does his homework, he crosses his T’s and dots his I’s.”
Committee members Neilson (a P&Z member and designee to the Committee), Goodwin, Chris Wilson, Maria Weingarten (Board of Finance), Bill Parrett, Jane Williams, Hilary Ormond (Town Council), Mike Sweeney (Housing Authority) and Jeff Williams voted in favor.
The Committee also voted 9-0 to elect Wilson as secretary.
In addition to electing officers, the Committee members during the approximately two-hour meeting introduced themselves, reviewed their mandate and requirements under the Freedom of Information Act, set a baseline meeting schedule (second Monday of each month), laid out a plan to educate themselves on the wide-ranging and complicated issues at hand, and heard from town officials with knowledge of affordable housing and a stake, as municipal leaders as well as residents, in the appointed body’s work. Those included First Selectman Dionna Carlson, Selectman Steve Karl, New Canaan Housing Authority Chair Scott Hobbs and P&Z Chair Dan Radman.
Carlson, who oversaw the Committee’s election of officers, addressed the group’s priorities.
“As you all know, 8-30g is an overhanging piece of legislation that is not even close to being perfect but we have to comply with it, so we want to do it in a way that really speaks to the character of this community, while also providing housing for those who need it,” Carlson said.
She continued: “For me, as you look at the Charter and the ordinance for this Committee, I’m looking to this group to look at: Where are we going to put affordable housing? What’s it going to look like? And trying to keep it with the look and feel of this community. And then: How are we going to fund it? And then finally—and this came up recently in a conversation with Scott [Hobbs]—as we get more and more units in the community, we currently have a volunteer board, the [Housing Authority] Board that manages the properties and we have to think about: Is that a sustainable model or not? So how do we manage these properties going forward? So that’s my charge to all of you. We have an amazing group here, so thank you again.”
Carlson referred to an ordinance that the Town Council had passed last May that allowed for the formation of the Affordable Housing Committee. It calls for the Committee to identify properties that could support affordable housing developments in order to help New Canaan chain together four-year blocks of relief—each block known as a “moratorium”—from a widely discussed state law known by its statute number, 8-30g.
Under it, in towns where less than 10% of all housing stock qualifies as affordable (New Canaan recently was listed at 2.94%), developers who propose projects where a certain percentage of units are set aside to rent at affordable rates may appeal to the state after a local P&Z Commission denies their applications. New Canaan since its last moratorium lapsed in July 2021 has received three such applications, at Weed and Elm Streets (120 units, above Kimberly Place), Main Street (20 units) and Hill Street (93 units). P&Z denied all of them. Those applications are now under appeal in state Superior Court, as is a separate appeal regarding the New Canaan Historic District Commission’s denial of a Certificate of Appropriateness for the Main Street project.
The town, under Carlson’s direction and with assistance from Town Planner Sarah Carey, among others, is re-applying to the state for a new moratorium. Carlson said during the meeting that, if all goes well, the town could expect approval in April.
The town also has an active lawsuit against the Connecticut Department of Housing. In it, the town takes the position that the state erred in failing to credit New Canaan for “excess” affordable housing units that had been completed prior to the issuance of the town’s 2017 moratorium. (The state had used its reasoning in denying an application from New Canaan for a moratorium in October 2022—the town later appealed that denial, under the former first selectman, and lost.)
Karl in addressing the Committee noted that its very formation represents more than one year’s worth of work.
“This is a big night,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most important committees that we’ve put together in this town in a very, very long time. 8-30g has been an issue with us to try to figure out how to continue our affordable housing in New Canaan in terms of building it, reaching the moratoriums and satisfying the needs of the community.”
Karl, who had served as Town Council chair at the time the legislative body approved the Affordable Housing Committee ordinance—itself drafted largely by Ormond and Councilman Tom Butterworth—noted that the Committee is a “unique organization” in that it has representation from so many relevant, important municipal bodies.
That should allow it “to get things done, make decisions and get things moving quickly,” Karl said.
He continued: “And we’re going to need to be able to do that, because everybody says four years is a long time. Well, it’s not a long time when you consider what we’re up against. So this is a very, very important committee and I’m thrilled that you guys are taking the role on.”
Radman asked the Committee for high-level recommendations regarding affordable housing to include in New Canaan’s Plan of Conservation and Development—a guiding document for planning in town that is fully updated every 10 years, as per state law, and whose most recent update is due at year’s end. He also noted that P&Z often considers applications for projects that make denser use of lots, and that the Commission would seek input from the Committee in ways that it might update the New Canaan Zoning Regulations (in 2025) and zoning map in ways that make sense, given affordable housing goals.
Hobbs said it was important for the Committee, when the time comes, to be unified in its recommendations regarding the location of future affordable housing developments.
“When we select new sites for affordable housing for the town, the town becomes the evil developer and unless we have a consensus where as an entire group we say, ‘This is what we’re going to be doing and there’s going to be some winners and losers, and that’s unfortunate, but that’s what is going to happen,’ nothing will happen,” Hobbs said.
He also noted that while the town will “play offense” by actively identifying sites and creating affordable units, it also can “play defense” by taking oversized lots off the table.
“There are a lot of parcels out there that could possibly be 8-30g parcels,” Hobbs said. “ And if we’re able to identify some of those and get certain rights over them—or if we’re able to actually buy them and inventory them or rent them—those are things we can do actively … to prevent more 8-30g applications from coming in.”
Asked by Ormond for a high-level picture of the cost of building affordable units, Hobbs said there’s a “very, very loose rule” to price them at $600,000 per unit to build plus the cost of land. On the other side, a nominal rent for an affordable unit can be pegged at about $1,500. However, $800 of that would go to maintenance and upkeep, leaving $700 in monthly rental income per unit. There also are 4% tax credits that effectively provide for 30% of costs not including land, so out of the originally $600,000 cost per unit, the town could be provided about $200,000 per unit to offset the expense of development. So on an annual basis, the town would be looking at how $8,400 ($700 multiplied by 12) can support $400,000 in building costs “and doing that math, the answer is it doesn’t,” Hobbs said. So, something like $150,000 to $300,000—depending on interest rates and costs—must be provided per unit as a subsidy, he said.
Committee members asked whether the POCD recommendations could come after the new year (the updated plan itself is due Dec. 31), whether the consulting firm now working with P&Z on the updated POCD could provide an education session on affordable housing to the Committee (can check), whether the town has ever employed eminent domain (probably, though not recently or for purposes of affordable housing development), whether an 8-30g project must be on town sewer (not necessarily), whether affordable units cannibalize the regular rental market in town (no, in fact the Housing Authority has a hard time keeping Millport Apartments fully rented due to narrow income requirements) and whether officials know the demand for affordable housing (multi-bedroom units are always rented out).