Note: This story has been updated to include more precise wording from Desegregate CT on the impacts of large minimum lot sizes.
‘Greenwich is misunderstood.’ That was part of the message of the Greenwich delegation at a press conference on Tuesday about the impacts of the state affordable housing statute 8-30g on the town.
The statute exempts developers from local zoning regulations except for extenuating circumstances including life and safety. Until each Connecticut municipality’s housing stock hits 10% affordable, developers are all but exempt from local zoning. All they have to do is set aside 30% of their units as affordable per a state formula based on state median income.
Local officials warned the 70/30 ratio of affordable to market rate in new developments was inundating the town with high density developments. In the process those developments erase charming old homes and exacerbate existing parking shortages and traffic snarls.
A recent estimate of the number of units that would need to be added for the town to comply with the 10% mandate is 1,250.
If all new housing were created under 8-30g (as opposed to the housing authority) it would take thousands of units before the town is in compliance. And many have said, “the goalposts keep moving.”
United in concern about impacts to Greenwich of 8-30g were State Rep Steve Meskers (D-150), State Senator Ryan Fazio (R-36), and State Rep Kimberly Fiorello (R-149).
Given 8-30g has been on the books since about 1989, the urgency of the recent pushback ties in with real estate trends that make Greenwich land so valuable.
For example, there was a time when Greenwich P&Z meetings lasted about an hour or two. For the last several years they have been famously long, starting at 7:00pm and lasting until well after midnight. To reduce demand on supplies of midnight oil, the commission set their start time back to 4:00pm.
Why so long? Even before masses of back country real estate inventory was scooped up during the pandemic, pools and all, “front country” was targeted by developers.
They pursued projects in neighborhoods near train stations, with walkable locations including Cos Cob, Old Greenwich, and downtown Greenwich in particular – oftentimes replacing de facto affordable older stock housing in the R6 zone with luxury condominiums and 8-30gs.
Last March there was a near brawl, if that is possible on Zoom, when Democrats from other parts of the state testifying in favor of proposed legislation SB1024 said Greenwich was hoarding amenities and opportunities through its zoning.
The non profit group DesegregateCT, who were credited with drafting the SB 1024 legislation, has asserted that Greenwich’s predilection for single family houses on large lots, including the two acre and four acre zones, was unfair, that, large minimum lot sizes hurt the state because, “They reduce the number of homes that can be built in any community making housing more expensive. They require people to have cars. They correlate with people of higher incomes, and to a lesser extent to the percentage of White residents.” (see Desegregate CT on more sensible lot sizes). That did not sit well with many in Greenwich, which has a bevvy of multi-family housing and several large scale developments managed by the housing authority.
Over 300 people signed up to testify and the hearing went all night long.
During testimony, Mayor Justin Elicker of New Haven pointed a finger at both Greenwich and his hometown of New Canaan, suggesting both towns’ zoning regulations were racist.
In a memorable exchange between Elicker and State Rep Doug Dubitsky, a Republican State Rep who represents nine small towns in the northeast of Connecticut, Dubitsky said, “I can’t live in Greenwich. I can’t afford it. It’s because of my income. You made a very blatant statement that there are towns and cities in this state currently, as of today, that are using zoning to discriminate against people of color and to keep them from moving into their towns. Name them.”
Mayor Elicker named Greenwich and New Canaan.
In that same hearing, Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo testified that Greenwich’s housing authority had spent $27 million on affordable housing units in the previous five years. He added that Greenwich was more diverse than many believe, noting that about 27% of the town’s population of 63,000 fell into the ALICE category, (Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed), and over 38% of the town’s public school population was non-white.
And so it was at the press conference at Armstrong Court on Tuesday, with the backdrop of construction crews and crane operators working on a massive revamp and expansion of the housing authority’s 1950s apartment buildings, that the Greenwich delegation announced they plan to introduce legislation to stave off developers taking advantage of 8-30g.
Senator Fazio, who described the elusive 10% goal of 8-30g as demoralizing, said the state statute was “imposing an undue burden on our town and allows developers to ignore and run roughshod over a lot of local planning and zoning rules that have the interest of the community at heart.”
He said the delegation would soon introduce a number of pieces of legislation to reform 8-30g and have bi-partisan support, “in a way that we make sure affordable housing has local buy-in, and is done in scale with and is consistent with the style and architecture of the town.”
Though 8-30g has been on the books since 1989, the hot real estate market in Greenwich has been a magnet to developers.
One local developer has vowed to redevelop an entire stretch of Hamilton Avenue in Chickahominy with multi-family, multi-story buildings.
P&Z does push back, especially when the applications are underparked – but, per 8-30g it’s not even certain developers are required to offer parking.
In fact, one application in Byram proposes zero parking spaces for 27 proposed units. Instead they propose residents would use a municipal parking lot.
State Rep Steve Meskers said the law itself is flawed and fails to take into consideration the existing de facto affordable housing.
In Greenwich there are likely hundreds of units of housing for private school teachers, hospital staff, and country club employees, along with other naturally occurring affordable housing that aren’t counted toward the 8-30g requirement of 10%.
In downtown, a 192-unit, six-story building on Church Street proposed under 8-30g would replace about a dozen houses, many dating back to the 1880s, that are broken into rental apartments at affordable rates.
Downtown, on Benedict Court and Benedict Place, about a dozen turn-of-century houses and carriage houses are likewise rented at affordable rates. The number of affordable units in the multi story building proposed to replace them may not be much more than the ones that exist, de facto.
At the press conference, Meskers, who applauded the work of the housing authority, said the goals of affordability and inclusion were worthy goals.
He also talked about the need to seek state funding to help the housing authority build reasonable, affordable housing.
“I believe that our workforce, who add to our community, and our seniors all deserve decent affordable housing,” Meskers said.
“The issue we’re facing with 8-30g is a density issue,” he continued. “The question with 8-30g is it represents a ratio, a development that is an incentive to builders. The problem is it allows the builders to build 3-1/2 to four times the stock. The incentive is to build higher density housing, which may not be what we want in town.”
“Do we need 500 units? Do we need 300 units? Do we need 1,000 units of affordable housing? And do we want four times that amount under an 8-30g proposal? Those are the questions we’re thinking about as we go forward in the legislature. …As I try to bring whatever marginal dollars back to the town I can, I’ll work to support our housing authority because that numerator gets built without having a multiplier on the base. It’s a problem of over-development, versus correct development.”
“All of us won’t be exactly on the same page,” he said referring to the Republican elected officials. “But I think we’re in agreement on the fundamentals.”
Sam Romeo, who is chair of the Housing Authority board, and Tony Johnson, director of the housing authority, (recently renamed ‘Greenwich Communities’) both talked about how they are doing their best to create affordable housing.
Mr. Romeo said the housing authority has been working quietly for decades toward providing affordable housing, but unlike 1989, in 2022, he said, “The developers…see this as the Gold Coast and Greenwich Ave as Rodeo Drive East. They see this as an opportunity, and are jumping in now to maximize their money and every square inch of land.”
Indeed, Romeo and Johnson noted that all housing under their purview brings the town closer to the 10% the state statute 8-30g requires, while with developers, only 30% goes toward that goal.
The catch, according to Anthony Johnson, is that the housing authority can only do one project at a time, and each project is years in the making given the challenges of raising funding.
Mr. Johnson said current efforts were focused on Vinci Gardens, a four-story, 52 unit affordable development adjacent to McKinney Terrace in Byram.
From there, he said they will focus their sights on Quarry Knoll in downtown.
The 7-acre property, which features 1950s era bungalows under a canopy of mature hardwood trees, is considered underutilized and substandard.
The proposal is to redevelop it with about 250 units across five multi-story buildings. The proposal received MI approval back in 2019 from the previous board of Selectmen under Peter Tesei, though residents of Milbrook did testify against it.
Mr. Johnson noted that, unlike other housing authorities that work with outside developers, ‘Greenwich Communities’ develops properties and becomes both the owner and operator. Every single unit counts toward the mandated 10% affordable per 8-30g.
“Once we execute that plan (for Vinci Gardens), we can execute the plan for Quarry Knoll. …It’s just that we have to have a relocation plan for the existing residents who live there,” Mr. Johnson said. “You can’t ask them to move away somewhere else and move back later.”
Mr. Romeo said the housing authority, which operates separately from the town, (it is not a town department and receives no town funding), faced additional challenges.
He said the cost of steel, lumber, gasoline and other commodities had skyrocketed.
Romeo went on to say that private developers using 8-30g were not serving the community as the law intended. He noted that developers using 8-30g were mainly building one bedroom units, which do not help working families.
“We’re building units that help working families,” he said. “We need to get in and revise that law from 1989. Cap it it at the number they voted on back then, and then take a big bite at the apple.”
The situation has become increasingly urgent, given all the pending large scale development applications swamping Planning & Zoning.
The ramifications run the gamut from maxed out sewer lines to over-enrolled public schools.
First Selectman Camillo said the governor had applauded the housing authority’s efforts, but that was not enough.
“As long as we don’t reach the 10%, in the eyes of the state of Connecticut, we’ll have this gun over our head – 8-30g, which does threaten to change fundamentally what our town looks like.”
“Every town I’ve been to – with all the first selectmen and mayors – they agree about this,” he said. “It doesn’t mater if they are Republicans or Democrats. It just needs to be reformed.”
Camillo said he was deeply concerned that large scale developments increase impervious surfaces and exacerbate the flooding problems in town.
State Rep Fiorello warned that this year, again, more legislation is being proposed by Desegregate CT.
She said 8-30g should not be a ‘cudgel’ for out-of-state developers to come in and make permanent changes to the beauty towns like Greenwich.
Given Fiorello is a member of the Planning & Development committee in Hartford, she will be pivotal to convincing legislators of the urgency for change.
“More and more people are realizing that even though the word ‘character’ has been canceled, this is a community,” she said. “There is a sense of beauty we want to preserve for the state and all our towns,” she said. “It is not a radical position to look for a tweaking of 8-30g. It is a bill that is 30 years old and hasn’t worked.”
Mr. Johnson said he anticipated Greenwich’s proposed affordable housing trust fund would help underwrite affordable housing efforts through Greenwich Communities, but that raising funding has traditionally been a challenge that slows their pace.
“Greenwich Communities is the answer to that, with the support,” he said. “Both political and financial – we can create a great deal of what the legislation had intended.”
After the press conference, a resident who didn’t want to be identified by name, commented the town should sue the state.
“This will at least give us time to get our ducks in a row and hopefully we can renegotiate the terms of 8-30g to something more realistic and sustainable,” she said.