Overhaul would close affordable housing loopholes
STAMFORD — The City that Works realized it wasn’t housing its workers in the early 2000s and sought to do something then on the zoning vanguard for cities of its size.
Now nearly 20 years later, it will revamp for the first time that program, which has made the city the state’s leader in one facet of affordable housing: units restricted by land deed to be forever affordable through so-called inclusionary zoning.
The Zoning Regulation mandates builders of complexes of 10 or more units keep roughly 10 percent of all new apartments affordable to those making half the area’s lofty median income. Since being voted into the code, builders have created 744 affordable units and have promised another 295, a review from last fall shows.
An additional 115 were not built, but bought out of with Zoning Board approval, sending housing nonprofits and programs a total of $23.6 million to house low-income residents.
The numbers are good, said Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing. But the program isn’t working like it should in 2019.
“The big idea is to make a good program better,” Blessing said.
The Zoning Board will this spring discuss remaking the program as part of the an ambitious 60-page overhaul, or “omnibus text change,” of the 356-page Zoning Regulations.
Drafted by the city Land Use Bureau, the overhaul hopes to position the city for a greener future and save more of its history after a decade of building boom.
A success story with shortcomings
The mandate, also called the below-market-rate program, has made Stamford the state leader in deed-restricted affordable housing, according to the state Department of Housing. Deed restrictions make units affordable in near perpetuity — usually 100 or 150 years — and are not subject to funding cuts like other programs.
In all, the city has nearly twice the deed-restricted units as the closest municipalities with 1,274 units to Norwalk’s 701 and New Haven’s 639.
Much of that lead can be attributed to the zoning mandate that has turned an otherwise high-end rental building boom into a simultaneous affordable housing boom.
For example, the Harbor Point complex and developer Building and Land Technology has brought 2,476 luxe units online in the South End and an additional 276 affordable ones because of the mandate.
“Since we’ve started building down here in the South End, we’ve done a great job building affordable housing; we’ve built more affordable housing than anyone in another neighborhood,” said Ted Ferrarone, BLT’s chief operating officer.
But recent moves by BLT and other builders to buy out of the requirement highlight some of the the regulation’s shortcomings.
Different housing, same price
As it stands, a builder pays the the same price — nearly $200,000 this year— in lieu of an affordable housing unit no matter the unit’s size once the Zoning Board approves of a buyout.
“Currently you have the same for a studio apartment and a 3,000-square-foot five-bedroom,” Blessing said.
That will change if edits are approved as drafted.
The dollar amount of a payment would go from a figure based on federal family income statistics to a fee for each square foot of unbuilt unit.
A builder who paid nearly $200,000 in lieu of a 3,000-square-foot unit could instead pay far more and as much as around $900,000 in some parts of town if the new code is adopted.
Where that money goes has also often been a point of contention that the overhaul hopes to solve, said Blessing.
Builders seeking a buyout now come with a potential recipient in tow instead of the city selecting what program or project gets funded. As it stands, there is no competition, Blessing said.
If instead the money went into a fund that was governed by a board, “it would make the whole process more competitive and more transparent,” Blessing said.
Both a new fund and a new board — likely made of members from the Zoning, Planning and Finance boards — would need Board of Representatives’ approval to take shape, Blessing said.
Code changes also pave the way for a consolidated affordable housing waitlist instead of each property manager housing their own.
All told, there are more than 34 waitlists for affordable units in the city with more than 2,000 names — many of them likely duplicates because those seeking a unit are forced to apply at dozens of properties.
Blessing said a central waitlist can solve both a “pain in the neck” for apartment shoppers and could hold down expenses for when there are fees associated with an application.
The downtown deal
Back when the affordable housing regulation was first crafted, housing developers wouldn’t touch downtown for fear of failure, according to prominent Stamford land use consultant Rick Redniss.
The Zoning Board knew this and provided an incentive, a 4 percent cut from the 10 percent affordable housing mandate in some downtown zones if builders replaced office space, a city planner’s albatross.
But in recent years, builders have had no trouble coming downtown and the incentive has outlived its use, Blessing said.
“I don’t think it’s necessary anymore, but when they came up with it there was actually very little development downtown,” Blessing said. “People now build like crazy.”
The new code ditches the 4 percent cut, and keeps the 10 percent level for most of the city. In some zones, it kicks up 10 percent to as much as 12 percent of all new units.
But it also pushes builders to vary the kind of affordable units they create — which have mostly been for those making half of the area’s median income.
Renters who got a raise taking them out of that that income band — roughly $67,000 for a family of four — have historically been forced to move.
The proposed regulation could expand the income eligibility of many units by offering different options to city builders.
Instead of making 10 percent of all units affordable to people making half the area’s median income, for example, a developer could mix up the eligibility and take in higher-income residents if it creates more units.
The move, Blessing said, would make for a more rounded system that can help more of Stamford.