Brooks Harris: We Need a Plan to Deal with Affordable Housing

Submitted by Brooks Harris

I see signs around town asking to halt oversized construction projects in Greenwich. But we do not have the power to just stop those projects. As most now realize, until we meet the state-mandated affordable housing requirement that 10% of housing units be “affordable” or get a moratorium, builders are exempt from local zoning authority. The only sure way to regain our control over local construction is to meet the state mandates. The RTM should approve the draft Greenwich Plan of Affordable Housing as the first step in identifying our options to meet this mandate.

Some believe we can just challenge large projects in court, but this is wishful thinking. While there is no comprehensive database tracking court results, over the 30 years 8-30g has been in existence, our P&Z department estimates that few municipalities have successfully challenged 8-30g projects and that anecdotal evidence suggests that “developers have won in some 75-80% of cases.” If we can challenge unwanted development in court we should, but we should also be realistic about the prospects.

Other opponents worry that if we identify alternatives, we may actually choose those alternatives. That the best way to prevent that is to obstruct considering alternatives. But I believe informed choice is generally a good thing. Am I not better off choosing between two alternatives rather than being forced to take one of the choices by default?

Many, myself included, do not believe the 10% affordable housing mandate is fair or effective. Even if you believe housing is a human right, why would you seek to build on the most expensive real estate in the country and provide substantially less housing for your investment? And the targeted number of new “affordable” units seems so capriciously high that we may not have the infrastructure (sewers, road capacity, etc.) to even handle such an increase. Others may feel that they worked hard and sacrificed their whole lives to be able to afford to live in such a nice community as Greenwich. Is it fair that they be asked to make more sacrifice so others get to live here without such an investment?

But whether this requirement is fair, it is reasonable for residents to ask, “what will it take for us to stop large and incongruous building projects in our neighborhoods?” Town leaders must be able to answer this question. We need to know what that plan may look like. Maybe the cost of compliance turns out to be higher than we are willing to pay. Maybe we determine we could not comply even if we wanted to.

Ultimately, we can choose whichever path we wish, but that choice should be based on understanding and considering all our options. That is why we need a plan.

The current draft Greenwich Plan of Affordable Housing consists solely of identifying and evaluating potential alternatives. The plan does not have the power to compel the BET or the RTM to allocate even $1 of Town resources. Town money cannot be spent on affordable housing without a vote of the BET and the RTM. The plan is completely non-binding.

How we deal with affordable housing is a very complicated question. And decisions we make should be informed. Just identifying the questions that we need answered is a daunting task. Should we seek a moratorium rather than comply with the 10% mandate? Can accessory dwelling units help solve our
problem? Why is our plan for “workforce housing” under Section 6-110 not helping? Is it more economic for us to develop our own affordable housing (like Greenwich Communities) or provide incentives for builders to include more affordable housing in proposed projects? In sum, we must determine what is the most efficient path for us to stop oversized construction in Greenwich if it is even possible.

The draft Greenwich Plan of Affordable Housing Plan starts to lay out our options so we can make informed choices. Let’s determine if there are better options for us than just allowing developers to ignore our zoning regulations. Doing nothing may be our choice after full analysis, but if that is our choice, let’s make it proactively and on an informed basis rather than allowing unfettered construction by default. The RTM should pass this plan to start addressing residents’ concerns with oversized construction in Greenwich.

Brooks Harris is Chair of the RTM Finance Committee and a member of the Affordable Housing Trust (AHT) Board of Directors. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not represent the opinions of the RTM or the AHT.