NORWALK, Conn. – Development is coming, Norwalk, whether you like it or not, according to former Mayor Bill Collins.
“The most critical problem facing Norwalk at this point is not taxes, it’s not police and it’s not the school system. It’s that we don’t have places to support people to live. People of low income cannot afford to live – I mean some do, many are still here, but we are squeezing them out,” said Collins, chairman of the SoNo Task Force, to the Zoning Commission last week.
While Collins and members of the Fair Rent Commission said this means that people who have lived here for generations are being forced to leave, the underlying threat is that Norwalk may not be able to remain in compliance with state statute 8-30g, which Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo called “a terrible law.” In spite of these concerns, the Zoning Commission voted to decrease the workforce housing requirements in Transit Oriented Development, part of South Norwalk formerly called the industrial zone, from 30 and 20 percent to 10 percent, eliminating what Commissioner Adam Blank called “a weird system that doesn’t make any sense.”
A bonus for affordable housing advocates: The Zoning Commission also voted to force developers to keep workforce housing on-site.
Collins said he has been encouraging Mayor Harry Rilling to create a city agency to “welcome” people who need lower-income housing. Developers should be given the option of paying a fee in lieu of housing units, to create a fund to build more deeply subsidized units, Collins said.
“Norwalk is not going to avoid the pressures of development that are coming from Manhattan. If you read the New York Times at all ,you see what is happening in Manhattan. They are building the big condominiums. People can’t afford to live there anymore, they go to Brooklyn. I have even heard of people moving to Queens because they get squeezed out of Manhattan,” Collins said. “Well, they are coming this way, too. Stamford is siphoning off the people that like to live in the tall buildings; Norwalk is in the position to siphon off the people that like to live in a more neighborly sort of place. This is going on today. If you pass this regulation it’s going to accelerate that.”
You can see people being squeezed out if you drive through uptown as well as South Norwalk, Collins said.
Collins said the situation faced by residents of Dreamy Hollow, a co-op that is in financial trouble, is troubling.
“By and large, the people who live in that co-op would probably not be able to afford to live in the workforce housing under the regulations that we have now,” Collins said. “But Norwalk is becoming so desirable, so expensive, that it is worthwhile for a developer to come in there and go through a very painful process of gaining control of that property and squeezing out the people who live there and actually destroying this resource for people who need lower income housing – today, this is what is going on.”
Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib brought up state statute 830-g, which is described by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center thusly:
The Affordable Housing Appeals Act
In 1990, the Connecticut legislature passed the AFFORDABLE HOUSING APPEALS ACT, also known as ”8-30g” (the Act’s designation in the Connecticut General Statutes). Under the Act, if less than 10 percent of the housing in a town is “affordable housing,” then certain developers whose housing development plans have been rejected by the town have the right to sue the town. Once in court, the town must prove that its rejection of the proposed development was for legitimate reasons.
Suib said that multifamily housing is not allowed in many parts of Norwalk, and if the percentage of affordable housing in the parts that do is only at 10 percent, the city will fall short of the state’s requirements.
South Norwalk is probably the most affordable part of the city, she said.
“It’s an area that I anticipate is only going to experience higher development pressure as the Choice Neighborhoods and many other development projects in the vicinity happen,” Suib said, referring to the expected rebuilding of Washington Village. “So the pressure will build to do teardowns and build newer, nicer things. We are all in favor of newer nicer, but they’re very expensive and the affordable component, as we all know, is still expensive and much higher than what people are currently paying. So my concern is we end up with a sweep of a lot of people who have lived there for a long time.”
Attorney Anna Keegan, a Norwalk fair rent investigator, struck a similar tone.
“People who have lived here for generations can no longer afford to stay and have to move to other places,” Keegan said. “Taking measures to provide affordable housing as part of a permit process costs the city very little. It would cost the city so much more to provide affordable housing in other ways. If we don’t take advantage of the low-cost method now and plan ahead for the future, we’ll all pay for it later in having to provide other services for residents who become homeless or are squeezed out.”
But former Zoning Commissioner Mike Mushak said the 20-30 percent policy was self-defeating, as, “You end up basically making it almost impossible to finance new construction.”
Inspiring development will mean more affordable housing, he said, as empty lots are built upon and old commercial buildings are transformed. “This fits in with a much bigger and broader vision for the city.”
Norwalk’s housing stock is at 11.02 percent affordable, according to the 2013 count, Senior Planner Dori Wilson said.
Santo asked her if the regulation change would put that at risk.
“Hard to say,” Wilson said.
“There is existing pool of affordable that has existed for long time, public housing and other things that provide a stable base,” but no one knows if developments that are approved will get built, she said. It’s also impossible to predict how much housing will be built in other parts of the city, and smaller developments don’t have to comply with the 10 percent requirement, she said.
“So far we have been fairly stable for last decade or so, so I don’t see an immediate threat,” Wilson said. “But as has been pointed out, this could eat away slowly over time, and there was a time, in 1995, when we were at 9.98 or something, we had to go and argue with the state of Connecticut that a development was complete, that was just getting finished and that was when we reached the 10 percent threshold. We have been above that ever since. … but that wasn’t that long ago. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I don’t know.”
Regarding 830-g, she said, “Developers can come in and file an application to revise their zoning regulations and … instead of you having control of your zoning regulations, the onus is now on the town to explain why you can’t modify the regulation to bring in more affordable housing.”
Santo said failing to meet the requirement gives developers the right to build what they want, such as a 100-unit building in an area zoned for something much smaller.
“It’s a terrible law, I think a zone buster. But these towns suffer with this, but we have to live with it, that’s why I have desire to stay above the 10 percent,” Santo said.
“We’re really far out before we’re going to have any risk,” Blank said. If Washington Village and the POKO project on Wall Street are built, the affordable housing percentage will spike, he said, and if a four-apartment building is knocked down and replaced with a 40-apartment building, then 10 percent of it will be affordable and the result is a wash.
“I am not sure how you can have meaningful development without some gentrification,” Blank said. “If you have development you’re going to have to have some gentrification. I don’t think you can get it both ways. I do think that the fee-in-lieu is, in the long term, the best solution to this issue. I think we’re better off as a community if you can have a developer contribute money to some agency or entity to administer, in a mixed income fashion, like the Trinity proposal, rather than having them all built on site.”
The 30-20 percent regulation was designed for the Norwalk Housing Authority to preclude other housing in what had been a strictly industrial area, he said.
“I don’t see this as destroying South Norwalk as a moderately affordable place to live,” Blank said.
Commissioner Nate Sumpter said he heard Rilling talk about a task force to deal with those families that are falling between the cracks.
“Workforce is not really affordable housing,” Sumpter said. “… That is something that has to be thought about and something that a task force in this city needs to think about now before the rents go sky high, and we don’t have those affordable families other than what is happening with Trinity and places like that.”
The regulations passed unanimously.