Though he declined to name specific properties (so as not to give anyone ideas), the chairman of the Planning & Zoning Commission on Wednesday said the town is at risk of seeing unwanted housing complexes shoehorned into New Canaan by developers leveraging a state law whose spirit and intended purpose—not always evident in practice—is to boost affordable housing stock.
Under normal circumstances, that’s a widely embraced goal by New Canaanites who point to valued, essential workers such as teachers, police, firefighters and public works crewmen as candidates for affordable units.
Yet the Affordable Housing Appeals Act (sometimes called “8-30g” for its statute number) when abused is a tool that developers wield in order to get around rejections of site plans locally.
“There are several parcels in town which may be targeted by—and I’m sorry to say this—probably mostly out-of-town developers who would like to come in and propose 8-30g affordable units there,” P&Z Chairman Laszlo Papp said Wednesday during a Town Council meeting.
The law is triggered in municipalities where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is considered “affordable,” by the state’s definition. That definition lumps New Canaan (and other lower Fairfield County towns) into the “Norwalk-Stamford Metropolitan Area” in calculating affordability—in other words, a formula based on a geographic area within which land values, lot sizes, individual character and attendant rental or mortgage payments vary widely.
In New Canaan, hitting the “affordability” guideline would mean reaching upwards of 750 units qualify within that scheme—a prohibitively high figure, officials say (we’re at about 2.4 percent now).
So, if a building plan is rejected, a developer can work around it by designating a certain percentage of units as “affordable.”
“It’s a bad law. It’s a stupid law,” Papp said at the meeting, held in the Sturgess Room of the Visitors Center at the New Canaan Nature Center. “The reason I’m saying this isn’t because I don’t like it. It’s because it makes absolutely no differentiation among towns which can achieve the so-called 10 percent affordability, and the town which will never, ever achieve that.”
He added: “No matter how diligently we work in that direction—and we certainly agree with the intent to have affordable housing units available to those who need it—we will never, ever achieve 750 affordable housing units in New Canaan.”
What New Canaan may do is get a short-term reprieve from the developer loophole by qualifying for a provision in the state law that could yield a three-year moratorium of the Affordable Housing Appeals Act. The provision itself is very complicated: Under it, types of housing are assigned points based on variables such as how much they cost (in mortgage payments or rent) and who they serve (seniors or families). If a town amasses enough “housing unit equivalent” points, it can earn a three-year exemption.
Town Council Secretary Kathleen Corbet asked Papp point-blank which properties he was referring to as “targeted.”
He declined, saying he should not name them “parcel by parcel.”
“I don’t want to name them and give ideas to anybody,” he said, adding to the Town Council generally: “But you know some of those properties which may be targeted.”
New Canaan is hoping to work toward the exemption provision by doubling the number of affordable units at the Housing Authority-controlled complex opposite Mill Pond. The Town Council agreed to give the Housing Authority access to $500,000 in a fund that amasses money by taking a percentage of some building permit applications and whose sole purpose is to boost New Canaan’s affordable housing stock. It will be used for engineering and architectural studies on the Mill Pond site.
Papp said he’s pleased that his idea of the 1 percent fee is coming to fruition “and let’s hope that we will achieve at least temporary relief by doing this [Mill Pond project] because I don’t have to tell you that there are some real threats existing in town, and so far the Planning & Zoning Commission was able to finesse all of the threats—and there are about three of those serious issues coming up—I’m not sure how we will fare in the next attack but I am sure we will deal with that as well.”
Even if the Housing Authority pursues the plan to rebuild more densely at Mill Pond, questions linger about whether that would result in qualifying for the moratorium and even then, Papp said, relief from 8-30g would not arrive until the capital project itself is completed.
And the major roadblock to that completion, Housing Authority Chair Chuck Berman said, is Hartford. He cited one recent example where moving a driveway two feet at Mill Pond took nine months and $100,000 to get approval.
“And then we’re dealing with—worse, actually—the federal government,” he said. “HUD doesn’t hold a mortgage on the property, yet they maintain that they have complete rights to approve or disapprove what it is we’re going to do on the site.”
Town Council Vice Chairman Steve Karl asked about the makeup of the residents in New Canaan’s affordable housing units. Berman responded that most of the units are 1-bedroom and so no kids live there, and added that generally there aren’t kids living in the 2- or 3-bedroom units either. The residents at Mill Pond are single people who work in retail or older couples, Berman said.
Karl inquired whether the Housing Authority might connect more closely with the district and town to make sure essential workers know when affordable units become available.
“What can we do to make them aware?” Karl said. “Because the teachers, the fire and police, those people who are serving our community, we’d love to see those people benefit.”