Changes in affordable housing law welcome, but impact said to be modest
FAIRFIELD — Changes to the state’s affordable housing law — known to many in town as simply “8-30g” — are welcome, but officials say they don’t go far enough to have a major impact on Fairfield.
“Modest,” was the word used by Mark Barnhart, the town’s community and economic development director, to describe the new law, which was initially vetoed by the governor. The state Senate, however, overrode that veto and pushed through the bill that incentivize the building of affordable units.
“It will be modestly beneficial to the town,” Barnhart said. “The reality is, it would add 10.5 unit equivalency points. That’s not a lot.”
Those equivalency points are what makes a town either exempt from the statute or able to apply for a moratorium, a four-year respite from developers who could otherwise skirt local zoning regulations so long as they provide some affordable units. To be exempt, 10 percent of a town’s housing stock must meet the state requirements as affordable. Fairfield is at about 2 percent. As of 2014, when the town’s affordable housing plan was updated, the town had 124 equivalency points, not enough to qualify for a moratorium.
Under the latest changes, Barnhart said, towns now get bonus points for affordable elderly housing developments and for any affordable three-bedroom units.
In Fairfield, that means bonus points for the Greenfield Commons elderly housing and the former Navy housing project called Parkview Commons.
“We need a total of 433 points to qualify for a moratorium,” Barnhart said. He said if projects currently in the pipeline that include set-aside affordable units, such as the mixed-use building under construction on Commerce Drive and the apartment building on Unquowa Road awaiting a vote from the Town Plan and Zoning Commission, were built and occupied, “We would have more than enough.”
Housing unit equivalency points are based on the type of housing — for example, an affordable rental unit for a family making 40 percent of the average median income gets more points than an elderly rental unit.
Other changes to the law, Barnhart said, that wouldn’t be felt immediately include a lower threshold for subsequent moratoriums, which would also last longer — five years as opposed to four.
Urban legislators tended to support Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s veto, upholding stricter regulations to achieve a moratorium on affordable housing. Most suburban and rural legislators favored the override on the grounds it gave them more power to ward off potentially-predatory developers able to skirt local zoning laws in municipalities without an acceptable number of affordable units.
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, supported the override although she had hoped for more in the new bill.
“Yes, it’s definitely an improvement to what’s been on statue for nearly 30 years and gives Fairfield a better chance of reaching a moratorium,” the ranking member of the Housing Committee said. “Is it everything I fought for? No, because changes to the statute are very controversial.”
Kupchick and Barnhart, along with First Selectman Mike Tetreau, all pointed out that the town being proactive, and building affordable housing in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, works against them.
“I wanted to remove the restriction of when affordable units could be counted,” Kupchick said. For example, developments like Parish Court and Pine Tree don’t count. The owner-built units on Greenfield Street were also finished before the eligible date.
“There is some potential for dispute between what the town says we should get credit for and what the state says,” Barnhart said. “Pine Tree is a good example.”
The original 38 units at Pine Tree, built in the ‘60s and ‘70s, have been completely demolished. The new development has 50 rental units, restricted by income but no longer restricted by age.
Where there were once efficiency and one-bedroom units, there are now one- and two-bedroom units.
“I would argue that’s completely new,” Barnhart said. It’s all new construction, no longer limited to the elderly, and was approved by zoning as a “set aside” development, he said. “So, for these reasons, I think we should get credit for the 50 units.”
Tetreau said Fairfield was one of the first towns in the state to develop and adopt an affordable housing plan in 1988. Owner-built, or “sweat equity” homes were built in 1987 on Greenfield Street and Nordstrand Avenue, and in 1992, the town converted two existing housing units to “sweat equity,” and built four units on the former Wade Dairy property on Granville Street.
“It makes no sense that you don’t count that housing,” Tetreau said. “We were an ‘early adopter.’” He said the town took its obligation seriously, “and now we’re being penalized.”
“It’s too much about politics and not enough concern about what really matters for those in need,” the first selectman added.
Kupchick said she would also have liked to see the 40-year deed restriction requirement modified and change the percentage of units a developer using 8-30g would have to set aside as affordable.
In her testimony the night of the veto override, Kupchick said the original 30-year-old statute had an admirable intention — expanding affordable housing across the state. But, she said, “the law has been used as a tool for developers to violate locate zoning laws while only setting aside a small percentage of the units as affordable in Fairfield.”
Since her election to the state House of Representatives in 2011, Kupchick has been fighting to change the law, which allowed developers to ignore local zoning regulations and increase the number of units, so long as 10 percent of the total were set aside as “affordable.” It also placed the burden on the town to prove, if a project was denied, that the application was a threat to public health and safety.
In 2016, she said she and state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28, were able to get a new 8-30g bill passed out of committee and through the house, but it died in the Senate. The two worked again this year to “have a more balanced discussion on a wide range of ideas and changes” to the statute, Kupchick explained.
In Fairfield, developers have had mixed results under 8-30g, usually having to resort to a court appeal to overturn a zoning denial.