Committee looks to increase affordable housing

A series of proposals to both preserve and increase the supply of moderate income housing in Greenwich has been brought to the Planning and Zoning Commission.

Years after being created to act on recommendations in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD), the Community Development Partnership Planning Committee made its formal presentation to the commission at its June 24 meeting. The recommendations were specifically targeted to meet the needs of the town’s moderate income workforce, seniors on fixed incomes, young adults trying to remain or move to Greenwich as they enter the workforce, and others on moderate incomes who are “challenged” with trying to find affordable housing in town.

To that end, the committee, which grew out of the Housing Task Force recommended by the POCD, had several ideas for the Planning and Zoning Commission. They included the town requiring any development of four or more dwelling units in specific zoning areas to have 20% of those units for moderate incomes. Additionally, 20% of all dwelling units in future applications for housing in specific business zones in town would have to be deed restricted as moderate income units. There were also recommendations to offer a density bonus to developers as an incentive that would be achieved by reducing the lot area for each dwelling unit and allowing for a height increase of up to five feet over existing regulations in certain business zones.

Mary Ellen LeBien, chairman of the Community Development Partnership Planning Committee, told the Post that this density bonus would “offer developers an economic incentive to build more units than otherwise allowed, provided some of the units were for moderate income households.”

These are only proposals, though, and have not advanced beyond the discussion phase. Ms. LeBien said that the proposals were put together to meet the goal of increasing moderate income housing after studying what other communities had done throughout the country while taking into account existing zoning regulations in town.

“There’s no cookie-cutter pattern for a building zone in Greenwich,” Ms. LeBien told the commission. “I doubt that any two are the same. So we can’t have one empirical objective for all business zones. We provide changes… We are not suggesting a mandate to do it only this way but are saying ‘may’ and ‘should’ and give [the Planning and Zoning Commission] some room to make decisions based on the situation that comes to you and the lot in question.”

The recommendations also included offering developers or qualified property owners to essentially buy out of these regulations by paying a fee in lieu of constructing no more than 50% of the moderate income units. This money would then be put into a town fund that would be used by the committee, with expenditures requiring approval from the Board of Estimate and Taxation. This is similar to what already happens with shellfishing fees in town. Ms. LeBien said the goal is to have a non-stop, non-profit Connecticut corporation that would ultimately get 501(c)3 approval from the IRS as opposed to having a “housing trust fund” supported by taxpayer dollars, which other communities do.

The members of the commission expressed concern about whether that idea would work if there wasn’t enough incentive for the builders to meet any new regulations. Commission member Frederic Brooks wondered if builders wouldn’t simply take the buyout option to avoid having to build the moderate income housing and instead go for full market rate for the units.

“Our proposal is two-fold,” committee member Ken Rogozinski said. “The buyout is totally at the developer’s option. No one is forcing anyone to make a payment they don’t want to make. If a developer chooses to make the payment in lieu of actually building the required unit, my assumption is that they have some motivation be it economic or otherwise for making that choice. We didn’t think it was our job to interpret why developers might do something, but just give them the option. If they choose to build the required units, that ultimately is our goal. We want to see the most possible moderate income housing built here. But we understand the potential realistic limitations of a particular development. We wanted to give developers the option of making that switch and giving money to the town.”

Stuart Adelberg, head of the United Way of Greenwich as well as a member of the committee, explained that a lot of thought was put into the buyout option. He said the idea was that developers who wanted to build larger units, and therefore charge higher than market rate, would take it, as opposed to having to go smaller to fit in the moderate income units. Mr. Adelberg added that the committee didn’t want to “reward” developers for not building the units.

Commission Secretary Richard Maitland suggested giving the option to a developer to build some of the required moderate income housing while also putting money into the fund to make up the difference. That way, he said, there could be market rate units for the developer, at least one new moderate income unit, and money going into the fund. Mr. Maitland said he was worried the proposed regulations didn’t translate well to certain zoning areas in town where added size to buildings could disrupt existing neighborhood character.

Mr. Adelberg said the committee was “very open” to the commission’s suggestions and said if there were parts of the language that weren’t clear they would be fixed, particularly when it came to preserving neighborhood character, which he said was a priority. Mr. Adelberg said the committee did not intend to keep this an open-ended discussion but rather keep its work going on a parallel track with the zoning commission’s work.

The next step is for the committee to present more information to the town planner’s office. The presentation to the commission and the feedback received, will also be worked into future revisions of the plan. A second presentation to the Planning and Zoning Commission is expected in October.

Over all, Mr. Brooks praised the committee’s work, saying, “It’s always nice to see the product of good minds working together.”

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