Task force presents housing recommendations

Greenwich may give affordable housing a closer look after the Housing Task Force, a group established as part of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), presented recommendations to the Planning & Zoning Commission last Tuesday night.

A lack of affordable housing in town has been an issue for years and several task force members, as well as First Selectman Peter Tesei, urged the board to help them do something about it.

Mr. Tesei praised the task force’s hard work in researching and developing “workforce” housing options and tried to dispel the stigmas associated with the image of such facilities.

“Gone are the days of government subsidized, institutional-looking structures,” Mr. Tesei said. “They just are not what society is accepting of and they’re just not functional… We are a community of neighborhoods and people pride themselves on the neighborhood that they chose to live in.”

The task force’s presentation, Mr. Tesei said, should prove that what is sought for the town is a method of providing additional units of non-market-rate housing within Greenwich neighborhoods that no one will be able to decipher as being below market cost from the outside. The reality of the situation, he added, is that there are a finite number of ways to offer affordable housing units without direct government subsidy.

Nancy Brown, the town’s former director of community development, urged board members to consider the cost to the town when “our teachers our first responders, our elderly, the people that provide service that help make Greenwich a most desirable community cannot afford to live in Greenwich.”

There are many people who cannot afford to live in the town they serve, she said, adding that the lack of younger residents was also a detriment to the community.

“There is a tremendous loss to our town when young people who have just started their careers cannot return to Greenwich after college due to a lack of affordable housing,” Ms. Brown, who chaired the task force for the POCD implementation committee, said.

At the heart of the Housing Task Force’s recommendations is the establishment of a Community Development Partnership (CDP), for which a planning committee has already been organized. The CDP would serves as a public/private body to oversee the finances and the “public face” of the affordable housing program, according to Task Force member Mark Schroeder.

The CDP would not draw from residents’ tax dollars and would allow the town to implement affordable housing versus subsidized housing — a critical distinction, Mr. Schroeder said. Affordable housing, he said, receives no financial support from the government to pay mortgages, whereas subsidized housing offers government funds that support either the owner of the housing unit or its tenants, but typically reduces the town’s ability to control the reduced-price housing stock.

Accompanying the formation of the CDP would be a town-appointed board of trustees to ensure that the organization was working in the best interest of the town and its needs, Mr. Schroeder said. The umbrella organization would have two principal legs, he said. One would be a community residential trust that would receive various private sources of income, mandated under the Community Reinvestment Act, and provide day-to-day operations funding to ensure compliance and enforcement of the affordable housing program.

The other would be an outreach and planning agency made up of “influential and diverse” town residents who would represent the face of affordable housing and assist with fund raising without actually collecting those funds, Mr. Schroeder said.

Critical to the task force’s recommendations would also be new zoning regulations that would provide both requirements and incentives to developers to add affordable housing units to their development, according to Mary Ellen LeBien, chair of the CDP Planning Committee. In creating these requirements and incentives, the planning committee believes affordable housing would be under the control of the town and not ceded to the state, she said.

The thought process undergone while the Housing Task Force evaluated affordable housing options was a thorough, well-thought-out procedure that centered on five themes, said Ken Rogozinski, a CDP Planning Committee member. The group, he said, focused on preserving neighborhood character, protecting residential zones, encouraging residential development and commercial zones, encouraging residential development with access to mass transit and encouraging the overall development of affordable housing units.

The result, he added, would be the preservation of community character and the encouragement of small-scale affordable housing development in town.

Though the town has put off affordable housing for some time, it is critical that the issue be addressed now, as the lack of affordable housing options is making an impact on the Greenwich community, according to Stuart Adelberg, United Way president and member of the Housing Task Force. In 2008, the United Way conducted a study on workforce housing that identified it as a major challenge that impacted virtually every other local human service issue.

Greenwich’s real estate is beyond the means of many individuals and families who not only wish to live in town, but are often people the community needs, such as first responders, Mr. Adelberg said. Research shows, he added, that the town has lost about 4,000 young adults since 1980. They are a generation of people who grew up in town but simply can’t afford to come back, he said.

Greenwich is a desirable place not only to live in general, but also to work, raise a family and grow old, according to Mr. Adelberg.

“But if we don’t offer options for people at all stages of their lives, those who contribute to our vibrancy will move elsewhere” and the statistics indicate that it’s already happening, he said.

The best way to deal with affordable housing, he added, is not to ignore the issue but to address and embrace it with regulations based on the needs, desires and economic realities of the community. The Task Force’s recommendations illustrate that Greenwich can address the matter in a thoughtful, collaborative and appealing way without government funding and without the town losing the ability to maintain oversight of its processes, Mr. Adelberg said.

Following a hearing that has not yet been given a date, the Planning & Zoning Commission will decide whether or not to implement the Housing Task Force’s affordable housing recommendations. But, after Donald Heller, chairman of the commission, commented on the Task Force’s presentation, it seemed the outlook was somewhat promising. Mr. Heller told members it was the first time he’d seen a “complete plan” addressing the issue, although it had been talked about for many years.

“Congratulations,” he declared.

 

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