Residents, city leaders battle affordable housing law

Milford Alderman Bryan Anderson (D-5) told the state Housing Committee last week that greed has taken over in the quest for affordable housing in the state, and has led to some developers taking advantage of the affordable housing law known as 8-30g.

The Housing Committee in the General Assembly heard testimony on both sides of the 8-30g affordable housing law Feb. 16 as a number of bills were presented to amend the state regulation that allows developers to circumvent local zoning regulations to build housing that meets the affordable housing definition.

Some, like Anderson, said the law needs to be changed; others argued that the statute works as it is supposed to and that some of the changes proposed would only weaken it.

Anderson offered his testimony via letter to the committee, writing about his experiences and what he saw growing up in New Haven. His family lived in a state-subsidized apartment complex built for the families of returning World War II GIs before purchasing a home in Hamden. He supports affordable housing in general, but opposes a number of the plans that have been filed in Milford because of their density and other factors.

A former public housing director and housing specialist, Anderson said that certain popular housing programs were designed to insure economic dispersal and integration, but over many years, “savvy real estate investors, multi-family housing owners, and developers used their influence to insure a concentration of mortgage subsidies, certificates and vouchers were targeted within certain neighborhoods.”

Greed was the motive then, as it is in some cases now, Anderson wrote, specifically where some developers, denied approval for a building project, have come back with a plan under the state’s affordable housing statute because they know the city will be hard-pressed to deny it.
Affordable housing in Milford
Milford residents and representatives have long been fighting the 8-30g law that they say gives developers unfair leverage in building what they want where they want. The concern is that these projects are placing dense, multifamily projects into single-family neighborhoods, or taking land set aside for office buildings and making them residential properties.

Under the 8-30g law, a local zoning board can reject such a plan only if the project represents a threat to public health and safety that outweighs the need for affordable housing. Any 8-30g project that the Milford Planning and Zoning Board has rejected has been approved on appeal to the Land Use Litigation Docket, a branch of the state Superior Court.

State Rep. Kim Rose (D-118) started her political career fighting a dense housing proposal in her neighborhood in 2005, in which local developer Louis D’Amato proposed building a 28-unit complex under the 8-30g law, with 30% of the units set aside as affordable housing. When the board denied the project, he resubmitted plans for a 21-unit condominium complex at 283-303 Naugatuck Avenue without the affordable component, which the board approved.

The incident prompted Rose to run for the P&Z board and she was elected to the P&Z in 2007. When Rose was elected to the House of Representatives with an eye on fighting the affordable housing law, she was told it would be a hard battle to win.

In recent years, developers have introduced a number of housing plans in Milford under the affordable housing statute, some of which are dense projects on small lots. These include eight units on a 0.43-acre lot at 1613 New Haven Avenue, eight units on a 0.72-acre lot at 1556 New Haven Avenue, eight units on a 1.2-acre lot at 214-224 Seaside Avenue, nine units on a 0.51-acre lot at 132-140 Monroe Street, 15 units on a one-acre property at 335 Meadowside Road., 22 units on a one-acre lot at 14-26 Gulf Street, a 12-lot subdivision on a 2.7-acre property at 86 Pond Point Avenue, and a 36-unit complex on a 3.75-acre parcel on Cascade Blvd. Larger projects include 180 units on a 26-acre property on Wheelers Farms Road, and 257 units on a 7.4-acre property at 460 Bic Drive.

The city purchased a property at 701 North Street, and many politicians in Milford said one of the reasons was to thwart plans for an affordable housing development at that site.

Later this spring, the P&Z will be hearing a proposal for a 342-unit apartment complex at 553 West Avenue, which Grillo Services proposed after the P&Z rejected its application for a plan to relocate portions of its landscaping materials business to the site. The plan has already been approved by the Inland-Wetlands Agency, which praised the improvements it would bring to the wetlands in the Beaver Brook area.
In Hartford
In Hartford, Rose is House vice chair of the state’s housing committee, and state Sen. Gayle Slossberg was recently named Senate chair of the committee

With them in leadership positions, a number of Milford residents, including Mayor Ben Blake, are hoping to see some change to the law.

Blake, along with Milford representatives and residents, offered testimony before the state Housing Committee Feb. 16 on SB-535: An Act Revising the Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Process and Requirements for Affordable Housing Applications and Obtaining a Municipal Moratorium.

The bill, co-sponsored by the entire Milford delegation, sets up requirements for affordable housing developments in historic districts, expands the types of housing that a municipality can count in order to qualify for an affordable housing moratorium, and makes other revisions to the statute concerning affordable housing.

In Milford, it would allow for the counting of housing that is affordable but not deed-restricted toward its quota of required affordable housing under the law. The mobile homes at Milford’s Ryder Park are one example.

Slossberg said the proposal also would allow the Planning and Zoning Board to look at the density of a proposal in relation to the surrounding area when making its determination. It also calls for a three-judge panel to rule on a developer’s appeal, rather than “going to the same judge every time.”

“We all recognize the need for affordable housing,” Slossberg told The Milford Mirror after the hearing. “This [8-30g] is one small program that delivers the least amount of affordable housing to the state but causes the most challenges.”

In his testimony, which Milford Economic Development Director Julie Nash read before the committee, Mayor Blake said Milford is not getting credit for housing that should qualify as affordable.

“As a mature community dating back to 1639, many of our affordable properties were developed prior to the law’s cut-off that only credits the affordable units that were deed-restricted after 1990,” Blake wrote. “This artificial statutory condition distorts the actual affordability of Milford’s housing stock. Moreover, the present statutory formula creates an uneven playing field, making it difficult for certain mature Connecticut communities, like Milford, to qualify for a moratorium or exemption under Connecticut General Statute 8-30g.”

He said the law is misguided and must be rewritten.

State Rep. Pam Staneski (R-119), in her testimony before the committee, said Milford has embraced affordable housing but that the law needs to change.

“The goal of our Milford delegation’s legislation proposal is not to stop affordable housing but to have a better process in place to protect the health, safety and character of the surrounding neighborhoods,” she said.

State Rep. Charles Ferraro (R-117) said 8-30g gives predatory developers the ability to circumvent local zoning laws.

“We need to adjust this top-down policy to give well-deserved control back to the local zoning officials,” he said. “I am hopeful that [SB-535] will pass and that we can begin to make the necessary changes to the housing regulations in Connecticut.”

Many people spoke or wrote to the committee about their views of the 8-30g law, or about the specific bills drafted to amend the law.

Resident Linda Whittaker was among them. According to testimony posted on the state’s website, she said she is against having out-of-town developers coming into the city and imposing their will, without local input.

“Overcrowding residential areas with multifamily units squeezed into too-small spaces will eventually decrease the value of existing properties,” she said. “The look of our pretty little town has already changed in some neighborhoods. That is not fair to those homeowners who purchased property with certain expectations of beauty and open space, only to now be told their neighborhoods will have more traffic and less outdoor living area.”
On the other side
Richard K. Freedman, president of Garden Homes Management, which owns apartments on Golden Hill Street and Cascade Boulevard and plans to build housing under the affordable housing statute on Bic Drive, was among those defending the current affordable housing law. According to the state’s website, Freedman sent written testimony to the Housing Committee opposing changes he said will weaken the affordable housing law.

“Since 2005 we have proposed seven projects under 8-30g,” he wrote. “Three are built, one is nearing construction and three are in litigation.”

“The impact of 8-30g is clear,” his letter continues. “In 1992, only 3.9% of housing units in non-exempt towns was affordable. Since 1992, 10% of units added in non-exempt towns have been affordable, raising the overall affordable percentage in non-exempt towns to 4.8%. The law has worked precisely as intended.”

State Rep. Roland Lemar (D-96), who represents East Haven and New Haven, spoke against a number of the bills that call for changes to 8-30g. He argued that 8-30g does not undermine neighborhood character and local planning, and he disputed claims that it does not count elderly housing or housing built before 1990.

“There is a great deal of misinformation about Section 8-30g,” Lemar said. “Suburban local news outlets often report that housing constructed before 1990 and elderly-only housing ‘do not count’ for the purposes of 8-30g. This simply isn’t true. If it were true, I doubt any town in the state would be compliant.”

He also said he believes the moratorium process works. “From Darien to Berlin, a good number of Connecticut towns have sought and achieved moratoria from 8-30g. Recent moratorium recipients include Wilton, Ridgefield and Farmington. The moratorium process works for those towns that make an earnest effort to be inclusive.”

Lemar added, “I firmly believe that 8-30g works and that we should not undermine it. The proposed bills under consideration today include some ideas that may seem, at first glance, to be reasonable changes to the statute — but they all, in practice, would lead to a direct undermining of our desire to create open and inclusive communities throughout Connecticut.”
Another view
Jeffrey Gordon, landscape architect, site planner, and president of Codespoti & Associates, has been involved in affordable housing plans, including the Seaside Avenue proposal. While he did not testify at the hearing in Hartford, he offered his views of the law.

He said it was intended to keep everyday people in the communities where they worked: Teachers, firemen, emergency medical technicians, nurses, librarians, police, and others.

“The statute is far reaching in that it sought to reduce or eventually eliminate bloated government housing operations, and put them into a more efficient, profit minded private sector competitive format,” Gordon told the Mirror. “Provide the best, most affordable rental and/or sales dwellings than your competitor. The carrot on the stick is profit. The developer, in order to embrace his or her participation would be granted increased density to subsidize the qualifying homes. Rather than taxes subsidizing housing, profits would. Fundamentally, it was hoped communities would embrace their roles in establishing regulations and areas where such developments would gravitate.

“Unfortunately, many of the local regulations promulgated, in fact, had conditions which would make such developments untenable, unprofitable, thus unable to obtain financing,” Gordon continued. “It was the typical, ‘We are not opposed to affordable housing, but it needs to be this way, or somewhere else’ response.”

He believes large scale 8-30g developments should be specifically promoted in areas where a comprehensive plan of development wishes to locate them.

“However, smaller infill developments should be encouraged throughout communities to encourage housing choices and opportunities,” Gordon said. “These projects, smaller in scale, rarely have significant impacts on the surrounding neighborhoods and historically assimilate quickly into the fabric of the community.”
What’s next
Rose said the Housing Committee’s task now is to craft a bill the members think has a chance of passing the entire House and Senate.

“Our committee will be meeting soon to ‘screen’ the bills that were held in public hearings to see which one/ones, if any, will be drafted and brought to the floor for debate,” Rose said. “There are two bills that I am watching, which, of course, is the Milford delegation bill, which is really Milford-specific, as well as the committee bill, which incorporates some items that the committee felt were acceptable changes and were taken from some of the bills submitted.”

Rose believes that change needs to be made to the current law.

“The statute, after 30 years, has only produced 5,500 units,” Rose said. “That is a very low number, and considering what it’s doing to our neighborhoods, it’s a crime.”

Milford Mirror correspondent Tom Ebersold, who covers Planning & Zoning in Milford, contributed to this article.