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Affordable Housing Law Could Open Connecticut's 'Gold Coast' to the 99 Percent

The 8-30g law strong-arms towns into approving construction plans that include affordable housing.

New Canaan, Connecticut

The southern portion of Connecticut’s Fairfield County is called the Gold Coast because it's home to so many wealthy businessmen and bankers who commute daily into New York. But though the region includes some of the wealthiest ZIP codes in the country, it hasn't escaped the effects of the recession-spurred housing collapse.

Home prices in affluent New England markets are beginning to inch up overall, according to a report on luxury housing released last fall. But in Gold Coast towns like Darien, New Canaan, and Westport, substantial recovery remains elusive. Accepting that they won't soon see profits on the towns' homes, property owners and developers are making a move that once seemed unthinkable: opening their arms to the 99 percent.

They’re doing this by harnessing a state law that strong-arms towns into approving construction plans that include affordable housing. Under Connecticut law, towns in which less than 10 percent of the housing stock is affordable to people making under 80 percent of its median income must exempt affordable housing projects from zoning laws. That means that in the absence of major safety issues with the proposed project, towns are required to approve any affordable housing application. So in an economic environment in which McMansion sales can't live up to pre-recession purchase prices, use of this law, called 8-30g, virtually guarantees sellers and developers a chance to profit on dense apartment buildings in areas where such buildings seem out of place.

Town land use officials dislike 8-30g, saying it gives developers the upper hand and doesn’t allow municipalities to maintain a desired aesthetic. “Developers turn to 8-30g when they think towns are being unreasonable. That’s nothing new,” says Timothy Hollister, an attorney who has represented many affordable housing applicants in the past 25 years, including one currently in front of New Canaan’s land use commission. “There’s also a lot of cases that say towns can’t turn [a proposal] down because they think it will change the character of the town.”

Town officials in New Canaan, where about 2.5 percent of the housing supply is categorized as affordable, are currently shepherding the second-ever affordable housing application through its approvals process. “We’ve had several instances where developers have used the 8-30g process as a means to a different end,” says town planner Steve Kleppin. In other words, applicants threatened to submit affordable housing application—which the town would likely be forced to approve—if the planners didn’t agree to developers' desires wishes for other projects.

A current project in New Canaan proposes building 16 townhouses on 1.6 acres, five of which would be affordable units. The new homes would replace one house and an old, unused mill building on a street full of single-family homes. Neighbors are outraged at the potential incursion of apartments into their quiet neighborhood—the Planning and Zoning Commission chairman, expecting an onslaught of negative feedback, requested people designate spokesmen to summarize consensus opinions at a public hearing last month. But because the application includes affordable housing, the question of how the plan would change the area’s character is ultimately irrelevant.

Neighboring Darien is in the midst of a four-year exemption from the requirements, which is available to any town that demonstrates a 2 percent increase in affordable housing stock. Only two other towns have ever been granted a moratorium; Westport decided in 2010 to mandate affordable housing in some town developments to more quickly reach moratorium eligibility. But Darien must fend off a lawsuit challenging the moratorium’s legitimacy filed by a local developer eager to submit affordable housing applications. The legal action is being watched by northern neighbor Ridgefield, where three contentious applications are seeking to create affordable housing along the town’s grand, historic main thoroughfare.

Affordable housing advocates say the resistance to affordable housing is difficult to justify and amounts to little more than discrimination against poor residents. ”If people have this sort of gestalt that if the average income of the town goes down $10,000 because of a housing development, that somehow they’re affected, I just don’t buy that,” Hollister says.

Whatever the fate of specific proposals in towns that residents consider “the reward for hard work,” in the words of The New York Times, one thing seems clear: When the recession abates, these and other towns one reserved for the rich and famous are likely to be left with a citizenry more reflective of the world as most of us know it.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user WalkingGeek

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