Faced with the prospect of new state laws designed to increase the amount of affordable housing in towns such as New Canaan, the Planning & Zoning Commission should proactively focus now on boosting the number of units available to low-income families here, including through updates to its regulations, the appointed body’s chair said last week.
Though New Canaan already actively supports the creation of more affordable units—such as through a long-established fund that collects fees from building permit applicants and redevelopment projects that add dozens of new apartments here—P&Z should consider doing even more, especially as some in the General Assembly seek to have the state take over certain zoning powers to redress what they describe as “segregation” in affordable housing, according to the Commission’s chair, John Goodwin.
“I think we do need as a Commission—and this is just me as one commissioner talking right now—I think we do need to take a more immediate focus on increasing affordable housing in New Canaan,” Goodwin said during P&Z’s regular meeting, held Jan. 26 via videoconference.
Updates to the regulations—such as requiring developers with projects of 10-plus units to designate a certain percentage of them as “affordable,” under the state’s definition of the term—would create more housing for low-income families as well as seniors and working people who otherwise couldn’t afford to live in New Canaan, Goodwin said.
Now is an important time to focus on it, he said, not only because of expected new legislation but also because “we’ve got an affordable housing plan that we have to submit in 2022,” he said.
“So one of the things we could say is OK, let’s work toward that goal. The issue that I see with that is we potentially have some significant new development coming online in New Canaan this year, sooner or later. And one of the things, and many of you have asked me this question, is if we have an application, can we condition to an application certain affordable housing or certain workforce housing or however we want to define it and what we want to achieve?”
He added, “My understanding is if the applicant agrees to it, then that’s wonderful. Good, we’re all set. If the applicant does not agree to it and we do not have it in our regulations, then that might be a tougher task for us. So what that says to me—and you have to agree with me, you have to believe, you have to have the view of, let’s avail ourselves of this opportunity to diversify our housing stock as new applications come in—and if you believe that, then I think we need to get going sooner than later.”
The comments came a general update from Goodwin to the Commission on legislative actions.
Goodwin said that he has been keeping abreast of potential affordable housing legislation along with Town Planner Lynn Brooks Avni and P&Z Commissioners Krista Neilson and Art Casavant.
Since June, Goodwin said, he has been meeting with a group of fellow lower-Fairfield County P&Z chairs—including from Westport, Greenwich, Darien, Ridgefield, Weston, Wilton and Norwalk—to talk about “a strong feeling among many constituencies within the state of Connecticut that Connecticut from a housing perspective has a high degree of segregation.”
Analyses and efforts led, in part, by state Sen. Saud Anwar (D-3) and an organization called Desegregate Connecticut have concluded that “in order to fix this problem, the state must take over certain zoning powers and basically put them on a top-down basis to the towns within the state of Connecticut,” Goodwin said.
“What I’ll note is there are a couple of items that have been particularly pointed out as promoting a lack of affordable housing in Connecticut and one of them is Special Permits. And the argument of Special Permits—and this was interesting—is the argument of Special Permits is it keeps affordable housing development out of towns. And it’s a way of preventing that from happening. It’s a way of preventing builders from coming in and building affordable housing.”
Goodwin noted that he himself didn’t see how some of conclusions drawn related to New Canaan—for example, he estimated that he’s seen P&Z here approve upwards of 95% of all Special Permit applications during his long tenure on the Commission.
“Another term that is viewed as keeping development lower affordable housing development out of towns is ‘character,’ “ he said. “The idea of ‘character’ is it’s a way for commissions to effectively keep things out because they say that is not the ‘character’ of our town. Now historically, me being on this Commission for 15 years, when we talk about character we are talking about character to try and achieve things that are in keeping with the long-term plan.”
In addition to examining specific types of permits and language in zoning regulations, future legislation could include requirements such as that where there’s a “transit station,” multifamily units must constitute at least 50% of the area within a half-mile of that station, Goodwin said. Legislation also could “limit parking requirements,” on the premise that if local regulations require more parking, it increases the cost of development in a restrictive way, or make “as-of-right” some types of development that now require formal approval by P&Z.
“We would be basically required to adopt these as regulations into our local regulations,” Goodwin said.
Some of what P&Z can do now, as the long legislative session gets underway in Hartford, Goodwin said, is update its regulations and also communicate to New Canaan’s delegates to the General Assembly that Commission members are capable people. P&Z also should communicate clearly what New Canaan already is doing in order to boost its affordable housing stock. (P&Z chairs from other towns didn’t know that New Canaan has a dedicated self-replenishing fund to create affordable housing, he said, and it now is seen as a model system.)
Casavant, who works in the field of affordable housing investment, reviewed the state affordable housing law that allows developers to skirt local planning decisions if it is found that less than 10% of all housing in the town is “affordable.” New Canaan has applied for, and received, temporarily relief from the law in recent years in the form of four-year moratoriums.
He said it would be helpful for New Canaan to get an inventory right now of how much of its housing qualifies as “affordable” under the state’s definition. Casavant said he’d been in touch with a consultant on major affordable housing development projects at Millport Avenue “who had the latest one.”
“But you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Casavant said.
“We have to know how we are doing against our entire housing stock,” he said, as well as “how would we do if we applied for a continuation of our current abeyance on 8-30g.” He referred to the statute number that corresponds to the Affordable Housing Appeals Act.
“The only one I could find is two-and-a-half years old, and I believe was calculated prior to the inclusion of The Vue units, which are going to add to the denominator,” Casavant said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what Goodwin referred to when he noted that the town is expecting this year to see “significant new development.”
Commissioner John Kriz said, “My understanding is that Cross and Vitti, a lot of the properties have changed hands and that it’s now in the hands of a more concentrated developer-oriented group which is interested in doing things. And we are all familiar with those properties there, many of which are old, inside of open space.”
Last year, a cluster of properties in the Cross-Vitti corridor hit the market at $40 million.
Neilson noted that “the cost of land here is an important factor in affordability overall.”
“Yes, you can look at stats or demo’s of our town and say, generally people make 200% of AMI [area median income], but you also have got to look at the cost of land,” she said.
Referring to Goodwin’s comments about proactively addressing affordable housing, Neilson said, “I fully support everything you have said and I really see the advantage of trying to get something in our zoning regulations sooner rather than later, and then refine it over time as we work toward the affordable housing plan that we are required to do.”