Forum on Affordable Housing Focuses on Local Control, Property Rights and Unintended Consequences of Future State Legislation

On Wednesday a Zoom forum hosted by Greenwich’s State Rep Kimberly Fiorello (R-149) and State Senator Tony Hwang (R-28) focused on state affordable housing legislation expected to be proposed this week.

The hosts and panelists said they feared the legislation would diminish the authority of local zoning boards and give the State of Connecticut significantly more control of local zoning.

Tony Hwang, Kimberly Fiorello, Margarita Alban, Sam Romeo, Jayme Stevenson, Fred Camillo, Kevin Moynihan, Terrie Wood and Francis Pickering from WestCog.

Further, the legislation would not replace the state affordable housing statute 8-30g, but rather function in parallel.

Panelists included P&Z Greenwich commission chair Margarita Alban, Greenwich First Selectman Fred Camillo, Greenwich Communities (formerly called the Housing Authority) board chair Sam Romeo, Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, New Canaan First Selectman Kevin Moynihan, and Francis Pickering who is the executive director of Western CT Council of Government (WestCOG).

WestCog serves 18 municipalities, including the cities of Stamford, Norwalk and Danbury, as well as towns from Greenwich to Westport and north to New Milford and Newtown.

Ms Fiorello said several Democratic officials were invited to participate, but they declined.

“Individual rights are property rights. Property rights are individual rights. And zoning can be our friend or our foe,” said Fiorello.

“The proponents of some of these new ideas are saying that our local zoning boards are not getting it right,” she added. “They say that we need state-wide uniform zoning standards and more as-of-right privileges to builders.”

Fiorello said that only 30 towns in Connecticut had met the State requirement of having 10% of their housing be affordable. Until a municipality achieves that 10% benchmark, it is subject to 8-30g.

An 8-30g application can only be denied if there are significant factors of health or safety or environmental damage. No other consideration can lead to a denial.

Mr. Romeo said, “No town can ever meet the 10% requirement. Every time you build more units, the goal post gets moved.”

Terrie Wood (R-141) who represents Norwalk and Darien, said, “People want a bottom up government, they don’t want a heavy handed, top down bureaucracy. State control of local zoning would be just that.”

“Who do you trust to make local zoning guidelines and standards in your town? Your town or a central office in Hartford?” Fiorello asked.

The forum did not include anyone from DeSegregate CT, who have been involved in crafting a legislative agenda that their website said would lead to “abundant, diverse housing in service of equity, inclusive prosperity, and a cleaner environment.”

Also, per their website, DeSegregate CT, “would address land use issues that create exclusionary zoning policies and make it impossible to desegregate communities.”

Ironically, Greenwich does have hundreds of affordable housing units, but they don’t count toward the 10% requirement because they are not publicly advertised.

Rather, they are often units owned or provided by private schools, Greenwich Hospital or private country clubs.

First Selectman Fred Camillo said that when he was a State Rep he proposed legislation to the State Housing Committee that would have counted those existing units toward the 10% state mandate, but was unsuccessful.

Ms Alban said it made the most sense to let residents decide what development looked like in their communities, and that Greenwich’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) reflected community input. She said the POCD identified a need for more diverse housing.

She went on to list numerous efforts on the part of the Town of Greenwich to increase diversity of housing stock.

The Town created an affordable housing task force. There is collaboration with the housing authority. And, there is an effort in progress to update the town’s workforce housing regulation 6-110.

Mr. Romeo said Greenwich already was a very diverse town, both racially and economically.

He said that while the housing authority builds quality housing at the lowest cost, developers “have a different mind set” and use 8-30g to try to maximize every square foot of a property and make the most profit.

“What makes our town what it is is its tax base, which comes from its zoning laws and different zones to build housing.”

Sam Romeo, chair of Greenwich Communities (formerly the Housing Authority of the Town of Greenwich)

Romeo said the State of Connecticut offers grants to build housing in open areas where there is no public transportation, and the developments wind up not being fully occupied.

Francis Pickering, the director of WestCog, lamented that there was no urban component to the proposed legislation, and that rather than invigorate cities, moderate income housing units created outside cities would ultimately contribute to urban decline, and “a rustbelt pattern.”

He said the result would “further impoverish the cities by drawing out the middle class from the cities.”

“Who will move?” he asked. “Moving is very expensive and disruptive for a household. It will probably be the most upwardly mobile, not the most needy.”

Pickering said Hartford previously had 60,000 more residents than it has today, and the last 50-60 years had seen a pattern of disinvestment in Connecticut’s cities.

“There is no urban component in the proposals right now. One could say it’s an anti-urban proposal. In an era where we understand the wealth gap and social justice needs, clearly, it’s a disturbing omission.”

Francis Pickering, executive director of Western CT Council of Government (WestCOG).

Further he said, part of the reason Fairfield County’s housing is expensive is because it is where both jobs and economic growth are. He said the rest of Connecticut had the cheapest housing of any high income area in the entire country (prior to Covid).

“If we want to talk about racial justice and social equity, we need to look at jobs and economic opportunity, and not focus single-mindedly on housing. And when it comes to housing, not be obsessed with zoning,” Pickering said.

Jayme Stevenson, First Selectman of Darien said it was time for a conversation on improving the economy, generating jobs and improving education.

““It wasn’t so long ago we were talking about the fallout from the market devastation of 2007-2008 and that the high paying jobs left the state of CT, replaced by low wage service sector jobs.”

Tony Hwang said his constituents were concerned about their personal property rights.

“If someone wants to buy into a one acre zone lot. They take care of it. They love the community. They love their home. They love the acreage. And then, by the virtue of 8-30g, they get a 75 unit proposal,” he said.

“Given how critical home equity is in our society, we have to proceed delicately and not do things that could bankrupt one family and unduly enrich another family.”

Francis Pickering, executive director of Western CT Council of Government (WestCOG).

Ms Alban said the question made her think of the home owners in the path of I-95.

“What if you had had that beautiful house in a peaceful setting when I95 came through your back yard?” she asked, adding that too often homeowners are unaware of their underlying zoning, and are taken off guard when a neighbor proposes a subdivision or development that will result in a loss of their views.

Pickering agreed, noting that properties are worth less if they cannot be subdivided, and said the proposed legislation would increase uncertainty about property values.

“Most Americans’ primary source of savings is their home equity,” he said. “The middle class in the US is based upon home ownership. That’s why it’s so important to promote home ownership and help people at the lower end of the market find a way to find a home that is affordable so they can also ride up the escalator of increasing home values….The proposal before the state right now now would meddle with that.”

Ms Stevenson said the proposed legislation would focus on Transit Oriented Development around ferry terminals, bus terminals and train stations, but failed to note that it already exists. She said, for example, that in her town neighborhoods with starter homes exist in those locations.

“Depending on the outcome of this legislative session, (owners of those starter homes) might wake up to a developer buying the home next door and turning it into a 4- to 6- to 8-unit gentle density housing development,” Stevenson said, adding that Darien is pedestrian and bicycle friendly because there is minimal on-street parking, but the proposed legislation relies on on-street parking and it’s impossible to limit the number of cars residents have.

Further she noted that Metro-North tickets are expensive. People are not choosing Metro-North to get to their jobs,” she said.

Pickering talked about unintended consequences of the legislation, which focuses on developing affordable housing around transportation hubs. He noted New London and Bridgeport each only have one train station. Greenwich has Cos Cob, Riverside, Old Greenwich and central Greenwich.

He said the proposed legislation has the assumption that if developers can build multi family housing that they will build affordable multi-family housing.

“Often developers find the greatest profit margin in the most expensive product,” he said, adding that simply encouraging multi-family housing near transit would not solve the affordability challenge.

Last week, at a public P&Z session on Greenwich’s revisions to its 6-110 workforce housing statute, architect Richard Granoff said the appetite for luxury multi-family housing in Greenwich was voracious.

Ms Alban said environmental considerations should be factored into a push for more affordable multi-family housing.

She said Greenwich already requires up to 15% open space be set aside every time a subdivision is approved.

Alban recalled that in 2018, an 8-30g proposal was denied due wetland issues, and the decision was upheld in court.

“To some extent, this whole area of Connecticut is the lungs of the greater metropolitan area because of our tree cover,” she said. “To the extent when we give up our open space, it’s not just us being impacted. We’re effecting a lot of urban residents to whom we are giving a Co2 benefit. Same thing is true for Long Island Sound and keeping it from becoming hypoxic – low in oxygen and less conducive to natural life.”

Pickering said land that is highly developed is not good land to produce drinking water.

“We rely on local zoning to limit development intensity so that the land can still provide the ecosystems services necessary to deliver us clean drinking water, specifically to our urban areas” he said. “If we don’t have that, we risk turning into a Flint, Michigan.”

Stevenson and New Canaan First Selectman Kevin Moynihan both urged that solutions be market driven.

Moynihan said that New Canaan is comprised primarily of single family housing, but saw about 900 of condos built in the 60s and 70s. He said that his town created a “developer fee.” As a result, he said there is equity available to sponsor new, affordable housing units in New Canaan.

“It’s hard to facilitate affordable housing when the costs of living are so high in general,” he added. “You can’t change economics. The law of markets determines where things come out.”

“I believe in market driven solutions, rather than state mandated solutions,” Stevenson said.

Pickering said Senator Anwar’s bill last summer, which is being replaced by a proposal for new legislation crafted by DeSegregate Connecticut, was an attack on democracy.

“It’s very troubling to me,” he said. “The proposal before us would essentially tie the hands of planning and zoning commissions. A lot of this is coming from a feeling that 8-30g has failed its promise. I’m not aware of any studies that have demonstrated that – asking why hasn’t it worked and how can we fix it?”

Pickering said the proposed legislation purposely limits local commissions’ ability to thoroughly review proposals.

“This (legislation) creates a parallel framework, leaving 8-30g in place and compelling municipalities to permit multi family housing by right. So – reduce public involvement and oversight – in a variety of locations, but primarily around train stations, bus transit stations and what is loosely defined as a commercial corridor,” Pickering said.

He said he feared the result of the legislation would result in “random condominium complexes falling out of the sky across our landscape and creating negative impacts.”

Alban agreed. “Francis is making a very important point about the evaluation, especially for health and safety, environmental issues, and contamination,” she said. “We have situations where wetlands are affected, where dangerous traffic conditions may occur post-development. Those things require a thorough review by a local commission.”

There was some discussion about the spirit of the proposed legislation and how segregation might reflect redlining and racial discrimination.

“I’m sure (prejudice) hasn’t been eradicated, but I believe in my community it’s largely rhetoric for political gain, and not actually the reality of the decision making in the Town of Darien.”

Mr. Romeo, from Greenwich’s housing authority agreed. He said there was a stereotype of Greenwich residents all being wealthy.

Referring to a Black Lives Matter march down Greenwich Avenue in June, he said, “During the summer we had a group of individuals come down Greenwich Ave where people were dining outside, and make these accusations and disruption to these diners. I take offense to that.”

Pickering said unfortunately Fairfield County and south west Connecticut were made out to be the “poster child for what is wrong with Connecticut.”

“But as many panelists have mentioned, this is all driven by markets,” he continued. “Connecticut really breaks into two markets: part is in the NYC real estate market, and part is the rest of the state, which is more or less homogeneous. The prices are different in those two different markets.”

“We are not creating jobs. We are not providing a career ladder for low and moderate scale people to work their way up and support their households,” Pickering added.

See also:

Zoom Town Hall will focus on local zoning, housing and 8-30g for affordable housing

Jan 18, 2021

Camillo, Residents Testify against Cos Cob 8-30g; Civil Rights Attorney Reminds P&Z of “Duties to create affordable housing opportunities”

Jan 8, 2021

P&Z Considers 21-Unit 8-30g Development on Hollow Wood in Flood Zone

Jan 6, 2021

Greenwich P&Z Watch: DeSegregate CT Seeks to Make Single Family Zoning a Thing of the Past

October 20, 2020

P&Z Approves Text Amendment to Encourage Elderly, Affordable Accessory Apartments

P&Z Approves Legal Settlement for 30 Unit Building to Replace Homes on Milbank

Housing Authority Seeks Major Redevelopment at Quarry Knoll: 5 Buildings, Up to 225 Units Sept 13, 2019