New Canaan will never achieve the state’s goal whereby 10% of all housing stock here qualifies as “affordable,” according to a draft planning document now before the town.
In the last 20 years, New Canaan has added about 100 units of affordable housing while also adding 500 total units to its housing stock, putting its rate of development of affordable housing somewhere in the range of 20 to 25% of all housing, according to a draft of New Canaan’s annex to a 2022 regional housing plan.
“Assuming a steady growth rate in total housing stock, New Canaan could conceivably meet the 10% requirement in 2080, if approximately 35-40%—or approximately 300 units every twenty years—of all new housing units are deed restricted as affordable,” the document said.
It added that the high unlikelihood that New Canaan will meet the 10% affordable housing threshold “puts the Town at risk for developers constructing ‘hostile’ 8-30g projects that meet the State’s requirements, but ignore local zoning and local planning and design.”
“The best mechanism for New Canaan to plan for and manage its affordable housing stock is to regularly pursue 8-30g moratoria,” the draft document said. “To be clear, this strategy is not intended to prevent affordable housing from being built, it is to allow the Town to guide and plan for the type, form and location of affordable housing so that it will best meet the needs of the community.”
The comments are part of a 30-page draft “Annex to the 2022 Western Connecticut Regional Affordable Housing Plan” (available in full here).
Under state law, “At least once every five years, each municipality shall prepare or amend and adopt an affordable housing plan for the municipality” and “Such plan shall specify how the municipality intends to increase the number of affordable housing developments in the municipality.”
In New Canaan, a committee of five members, plus the first selectman (ex-officio) and town planner, has met four times since March to develop the plan, records show.
The committee’s work comes forward months after New Canaan received a formal application for an affordable housing development at Weed and Elm Streets. Separately, neighbors in the area of Hill Street and Brushy Ridge Road have said they anticipate a similar proposal there.
The town had secured four years of relief from such applications by creating a sufficient number of affordable units with the denser redevelopment of the complex at Mill Pond in 2017, and had hoped to chain a second “moratorium” from the state law by similarly redeveloping the Canaan Parish property at Route 123 and Lakeview Avenue. Yet the Canaan Parish project was delayed in early-2019 by financing problems, and then again by the pandemic. Town officials have said they expect to file an application for a new moratorium as per state law 8-30g this week. Once received, the state Department of Housing will have up to 90 days to make a decision the application.
During a public comment session held before the committee Monday night via videoconference that grew heated at times, residents raised questions and concerns about virtually every aspect of the plan. Attendees also voiced frustration with the one-way nature of the session itself—specifically, the inability of committee members to respond directly to questions raised.
While the state law specifies that “[t]he municipality may hold public informational meetings or organize other activities to inform residents about the process of preparing the plan,” it does not appear to prevent committee members from engaging in a question-and-answer session with residents about the plan itself. (One committee member, Planning & Zoning Commission Chair John Goodwin, noted during the session that he and two other P&Z members who sit on the committee are prohibited by law from discussing the application at 751 Weed St. specifically.)
The town planner is scheduled to address the draft plan before P&Z at the appointed body’s regular meeting Tuesday night as an “administrative action,” according to the meeting agenda. The Board of Selectmen also will receive and review the plan at a public meeting in the future, committee members said.
New Canaan’s Liz Moore said there’s demand for a public hearing with more back-and-forth.
“I would highly encourage this committee to try and create more opportunities for discussion and more opportunities where we can have more of a real viable discussion versus just a comment period,” Moore said.
Addressing the committee on behalf of a larger group of fellow town residents, Giacomo Landi questioned how one strategy in the plan—namely, working with private developers to use the 8-30g process for redevelopment of non-public properties—will generate public support for public housing.
The committee’s analysis also “lacks forward-looking demographic data,” Landi said, such as brith and death rates “and how the town will naturally develop outside of in-migration.”
He also questioned why the Merritt apartments that were part of a 2011 town study were “not redeveloped with affordable housing included.”
“This appears to be a large lost opportunity for the town and why was it not addressed in the report?” Land said. He also questioned why the town didn’t follow up on other suggestions that had been made as part of the 2011 Housing Opportunities Study.
Landi also challenged an assertion in the study that recent college graduates want to return to New Canaan. “Do we have any data that supports this?” he said. “My impression is very often new graduates follow jobs or move to large cities with a significant and vibrate age-appropriate cultural scene. As the document says much of New Canaan presently is focused on families and also retirees—are we expecting the town to also adjust its cultural scene to cater to move early career residents? If so, do we have a plan with regards to zoning that would make that work well?”
New Canaan resident Michael Field urged the committee to find out whether town residents would be willing to “step up and finance” another larger-scale affordable housing project such as Canaan Parish.
“What you are writing lacks any bold new ideas,” Field said of the plan. “It seems like you are rehashing things over and over, hoping it works.”
He added, “We can’t sit around and complain that builders are taking over without putting in play some bolder plan to do some development ourselves.”
Robert Juneja said it was difficult to take the committee’s strategy of chaining together 8-30g moratoria when the last one lapsed “for reasons that have never been adequately explained.”
“The best case scenario could be explained by incompetence and the worst-case scenario is much more nefarious,” he said. “The folks putting this plan together have a need to explain why such a failure will not happen again.”
The new draft document reviews the town’s history with respect to affordable housing, public and private housing developments and town-specific income and home value data.
In the executive summary, the town notes that “hurdles” to the goal of achieving a standard whereby 10% of all housing stock is affordable—meaning the town would no longer be subject to affordable housing appeals by developers, or applications like the one at Weed and Elm—“include lack of appropriate sites, cost of land, higher construction costs due to smaller sites and access to funding incentives afforded to larger communities.”
“Additionally, the Town has a significant gap in its housing stock between affordable and market rate, which makes it difficult for the Town to maintain a middle-income population,” the document continued. “The Town is flush with over-sized housing units, but lacks smaller sized units appropriate for seniors, young families and young adults. The plan recommends four main strategies for addressing affordable housing issues facing the Town: 1. Maintain a ‘rolling’ 8-30g moratorium so that New Canaan can manage the type, form and location of affordable housing; 2. Continue to prioritize the public support for affordable housing to facilitate the moratoria; 3. Encourage private construction of housing that services the need for affordable, workforce, senior and special needs populations; 4. Perform additional studies that inform where existing housing stock should be conserved, where higher density housing stock should be developed and identify partners to assist with construction, financing, development, asset management and maintenance.”
Though New Canaan has “a significant need” for affordable housing, the draft said, it also has “a large gap between affordable and market rate housing.”
“By continuing to focus solely on State and Federal definitions of affordability, New Canaan is creating an ongoing gap in housing affordability,” it said. “The Town has worked hard to build rental units for those below 80% SMI [State Medium Income], while market rates have soared to 226% SMI. Those who fall between those two extremes have gone unnoticed and unsupported.”
In 2021, the State Medium Income in New Canaan was $102,600 for a family of four, so “therefore, those who qualify for affordable housing in New Canaan would need to make less than $82,320 per year as of 2021.”
Another identified issue for New Canaan is that the town “needs smaller housing units for young adults and seniors,” according to the document.
“The majority of New Canaan’s housing stock is 4+ bedrooms in size (61%),” it said. “The super-sized nature of the housing stock is a primary contributor to the high cost of purchasing a home in New Canaan. Larger homes cost more to build and maintain and require more land. In the inverse, New Canaan’s housing stock is low on studio, one bedroom and even two bedroom units. These are the types of units that young adults who want to return to their hometown after graduation would seek. The same type that empty-nesters who desire to age in their community pursue when it comes time to down-size from their family home.”
Because such smaller units are hard to find, “young adults and seniors move elsewhere and we continue to be a community of school-aged families,” according to the document.
“When these types of dwelling units become available, developers often purchase them, demolish them and build larger dwellings on the land,” it said. “By right-sizing housing units to the needs of its population, New Canaan or the private market could start to close the affordability gap and begin to diversity its housing and demographic portfolio.”
Strategies for addressing the problems include preparing every four years to apply for a new moratorium, tracking more closely all housing units that could contribute toward a moratorium, including non-public projects, identify new sites for public housing projects, finding ways to designate as “affordable” some accessory dwellings on larger properties, assigning an agency to town-wide affordable housing-specific tasks, growing the Housing Trust Fund already in place, partnering with private developers and revising the zoning regulations to also create below-market housing for seniors, working families and those with special needs.
“While New Canaan has made commendable progress and has even been a leader in its development of affordable housing strategies and unit creation over the last twenty years, there is significant work left to be done,” the draft document’s conclusion said.
“Given the need to focus on State mandated housing goals, and in a world of constrained resources, a tradeoff has resulted. The Town has had to prioritize state defined affordable housing over a broader definition that includes workforce, senior and special needs housing among other needed types of housing availability. Going forward the Town will focus on two objectives that are complementary in terms of needed housing stock but are unfortunately competitive for resources. The challenge will therefore be how to meet both objectives. The first will be to continue to supply affordable housing as defined by the State by regularly qualifying for 8-30g moratoria. This goal acknowledges that it will be extremely difficult for the Town to achieve a 10% allocation of its housing stock that meets the 8-30g criteria. The second will be to develop and implement a strategy to target the provision of workforce, senior and special needs housing stock.”
To meet those goals, the town “will need to be creative in terms of strategies, which should include the consideration of public/private partnerships, the potential for Town and other public and non-profit supported financing, and ‘tool box’ incentives in the Town’s land use Regulations,” the document said.
“The Town should carefully also consider what town owned properties could assist in achieving these objectives. To advance this agenda, the Town should: 1. Consider the establishing of an ongoing affordable housing committee that should include representation from the Planning and Zoning Commission, the New Canaan Housing Authority, Town Hall leadership, but also other public and private stakeholders; 2. To assist the committee, the Town’s planning department should endeavor to provide tracking of the complexion of the Town’s housing stock; 3. In the short term, to jump start the committee’s efforts, to provide outside consulting support to examine the ideas already proposed, provide a fresh look at the challenges and coalesce a plan of action. The objective of this plan included to briefly outline the history of New Canaan’s efforts in providing affordable housing and provide a status, but more important to propose a construct for how we should define and achieve progress going forward towards affordable housing goals.”