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Collins: Norwalk’s biggest problem is lack of affordable housing

Norwalk affordable housing 15-0218

Former Norwalk Mayor Bill Collins pleads the case for affordable housing last week, left; Zoning Commission Chairman Joe Santo listens, right.

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.

Norwalk Housing Authority 150218 033

Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib, left, listens as former Mayor Bill Collins talks about development pressures in Norwalk.

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.

35 comments

M. Murray's February 24, 2015 at 6:10 am

Darien, Westport, and Wilton all seem to be doing OK without more affordable housing. Their property values are higher and their tax rate is lower.

John Hamlin February 24, 2015 at 6:23 am

The city needs to keep its eye on the ball by allowing development, increasing the tax base, and enhancing the school system. There needs to be some “other people’s money” to spend to address social issues short term — and we need to find ways to attract it. Long term we need to create opportunity, something Norwalk can’t do on its own as long as the state is so poorly run.

Keep Out The Poor February 24, 2015 at 6:47 am

@Murray I couldn’t agree more. No affordable housing! We keep this up, we can our city Bridgewalk or Norwport.

Non partisan February 24, 2015 at 6:53 am

I respectfully disagree.

City government is funded primarily thru residential property tax. Our tax rate is amongst the highest in the region due to the true percentage of affordable housing.

Section 8, workforce, subsidized, public, accessory apartments and illegal multi families are all “affordable housing”. The latter 2 categories are not included in the calculation but do affect property values, and total cost of government.

Our property values are directly tied to
1. The tax rate- the more you pay in taxes- the less you can spend on a residence- ask any mortgage broker.
2. The schools system ratings
3. Parks and recreations
4. Crime rates.

Affordable housing of all forms depresses the grAnd list. A unit that rents for say 1000/mo is worth less than a unit that rents for 2000, and so the real estate taxes are lower. This proposal will only exacerbate the problem.

The higher the density- the more government services are required. Schools, police, fire, day care, etc. This proposal will only exacerbate the problem while not bringing in enough tax revenue to support these added services.

The schools (relative to adjoining communities) are underfunded and spend less per pupil. This proposal will only exacerbate the problem.

The BOE rightfully so is doing a building condition and capacity utilization study. I am very, very, very concerned that when you take into account all the new multi family high density construction ( with the required % of affordable housing) combined with Washington village combine with the current state of good repair we will be looking at a huge tax increase.

Besides all of the above- how smart is it to take some of the potentially most valuable real estate and set it aside for affordable housing.

Also concerned that too much affordable housing is being concentrated in one area- read up on what HUD, NAACP and Judge Sands did to Yonkers, NY back in the 80’s. Read up on it.

Missy Conrad February 24, 2015 at 7:25 am

Do remember that our original mall, anchored by Pathmark, was redeveloped into housing by Avalon. The then Common Councilwoman, Rev Janette Olmstead Sawyer, inquired why we in Norwalk were not requiring any affordable or workforce housing- That was a lost opportunity. Let’s not give away the required affordable housing at the 95/7 site. And, the 10% is the minimum; people who care do not merely do the minimum when more than 10% of Norwalk’s residents require affordable housing. Having workforce housing on-site is desirable because studies have proved the disconnect in the sense of community when people do not mix with those who are different, here at an economic level. However, when on-site is impossible, as in the proposed plans for 95/7, money can be paid for affordable housing elsewhere. Larry Cafero, attorney for 95/7, has professed to care as much as I about affordable housing. I expect him & Senator Bob Duff to advocate for housing money for the right to develop the 95/7 site. We taxpayers have already paid for the infrastructure improvements in that area, counting on this housing.

Ray J February 24, 2015 at 7:44 am

The city is a cash cow for anyone claiming discrimination.
The area bordering the Woods pond preserve would have been turned in to affordable housing by someone named Crossland who had connections in Hartford. He threatened Norwalk with some notion that we didn’t have enough affordable housing according to some mandate in hartford, and was going to use his hartford connections to force it upon us, unless he got variance for his X number of building permits in the wetlands area. Fortunately our mayor Knopp engineered a buyout. More recently, Norwalk was forced to buyout the mosque.

Haley February 24, 2015 at 7:52 am

I agree with the previous post. If the mall is to be built, obviously affordable housing should be a component. After all, the people who will be employed in the low-paying, entry-level jobs the mall will provide in profusion will have to live somewhere.

Things that makes u go hmmmm February 24, 2015 at 7:54 am

Norwalk is trying to become little Stamford. Can we fill the Avalons that is located up town? A lot of people can’t really afford housing anymore. The other towns that is mentioned have it they just keep it on the low.

Piberman February 24, 2015 at 8:39 am

Former Mayor Collins is right. Norwalk’s greatest problem isn’t high taxes financing excessive City salaries keeping housing properties stagnant at their 2003 values. It’s a shortage of low cost housing. The exodus of long time home owners and small business firms suggests otherwise. As does a standard college text. There’s a reason our well paid City employees avoid living here. Mayor Collins might ask them.

Bill February 24, 2015 at 12:26 pm

“Collins said he has been encouraging Mayor Harry Rilling to create a city agency to “welcome” people who need lower-income housing.”

Seriously? What the heck is wrong with these people? We need the schools to get better, not worse.

Collins is a nice guy but what does he care about property values going up, he has no kids in the school system nor does he care to sell his house as he is already quite old and retired.

Adam Blank February 24, 2015 at 1:41 pm

just to make sure it is clear. The newly passed regulation reduces the required number of workforce housing units from 20-30% to 10% in one zone. This makes it uniform throughout Norwalk at 10% for all housing developments of 20 units or larger. We currently have about 11.5% of our 35,000 units of housing designated as affordable. See http://www.ct.gov/doh/lib/doh/final_appeals_summary_2013.pdf Therefore we are roughly 600 units above the 10% threshold. There would need to be 6,000 new units built in small developments of less than 20 units in order for our workforce % to come close to the 10% threshold. Odds of that are slim.

Canary February 24, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Mr. Collins. If you want to help keep affordable housing,please
read what is happing in your back yard at Dreamy Hollow. We need
help. This is hostel deep pock take over to build million dollar condos. I have been living for 8 months of threating to lose my
home of many years. Some may say well you signed off, but when
your constantly called and told the end is near and you better sell
and no one to turn to,(I did go to the Town Hall) but to on avail
were do I go? PLEASE LOOK INTO THIS> THANKS.

Bill February 24, 2015 at 4:10 pm

If you cannot afford to live in Norwalk you need to move. I am sorry but we cannot afford to subsidize your lifestyle. Please move to the south, it is much cheaper to live there.

– Norwalk Taxpayer

M. Murray's February 24, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Has anyone ever done a study comparing the tax rate, crime rate, and quality of education of communities with a high percentage of low income and affordable housing against communities with less affordable and low income housing? I’f so, I would like to see the results.

Suzanne February 24, 2015 at 7:26 pm

Wow, Bill, I don’t know if your statement is meant to be provocative or is serious. Either way, a person who has lived here for a lifetime deserves to remain here if they so choose. Norwalk has problems but I would not blame it on subsidizing someone like this gentleman’s “lifestyle.”

Annie R February 24, 2015 at 9:08 pm

I am a resident of Dreamy Hollow and have been for 29 years. Our community is multicultural and diverse – and includes young families, retirees, the elderly, veterans, and plain old working people. Our financial affairs were grossly mismanaged until our current legal counsel and management agent started with us. It is a beautiful place – kind of like living in a park. Exit Partners and their financial backers came after our homes with a vigor with plans to dismantle our co-operative, and turn them into luxury (aka high priced) rentals. I felt intimidated because I didn’t want to take the deal. They were (are) relentless in their pursuit to take this property from us. Multiple shareholders admit that they signed under duress. They turned neighbor against neighbor which in all my years I have never experienced. And why? Because in our world, it seems self enrichment trumps decency. That fair dealing and conducting business ethically iseems to be considered optional. That displacing working people and all of our neighbors is of no consequence to them. While it’s true that some welcomed this deal – they are generally the ones who want a quick exit not those who are long term owners who plan to live out their lives here. It’s just sad.

Piberman February 24, 2015 at 11:22 pm

One way to resolve low income housing shortage is to encourage local business opportunities. For example, there’s only a handful of black owned businesses. Imagine if the City’s development office was interested in encouraging local small business formation rather than beating the drums for the “game changer” owned by out of town interests.

Bill February 25, 2015 at 10:30 am

@Suzanne, No, a person who has lived a lifetime here but can no longer afford it does not “deserve” to live here. It is not my responsibility as a taxpayer to ensure this guy lives out his final years in a place he cannot afford. No subsidies. If you can’t afford it here, find someplace you can afford. It is not everyone else’s responsibility to help you live where you want. I would like to live on the Upper East Side, should everyone else have to pay for me to live there.
[…] open your house up to the freeloaders, don’t make us have to pay for them.

-Norwalk Taxpayer

This post was edited to comply with our comment policy.

Ann Romanello February 25, 2015 at 11:50 am

Shame on you, Bill. No one said that we can’t afford to live here. We are talking about the wealthy opportunists taking our affordable housing to make it unaffordable and to enrich themselves. No one here is asking for a hand out. We are simply trying to keep our homes.

parent & taxpayer February 25, 2015 at 12:15 pm

One point to notice though, is that there are families in Norwalk that own their homes and pay their bills and support themselves that are being forced out of these homes. For those families, that is aford- able housing. It is happening downtown and all around Norwalk. Now it’s happening at Dreamy Hollow; if it could happen there, it could happen to any of our neighborhoods that a slick out of town developer has eyes on. We need some one to watch out over our taxpayers (first generation or multiple generation) and not push them out of town. Good points Mayor Collins.

Suzanne February 25, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Bill, Clearly you had the privilege of being in a home which you can afford and clearly you have little sympathy nor compassion for your fellow citizens who need them.

There has been a recognized increase in taxation in CT, power, electricity, i.e., basic utilities, that makes it difficult for the long time resident, who worked and paid their taxes and continue to live here.

If our taxes are to go to education and sidewalks, I say let them go to assisting keeping the roof over the elderly and needy’s heads.

Your perception of these people as “freeloaders” is patently ridiculous. Your selfishness, thankfully, is not shared by most of the Norwalk community.

Please memorize this saying, “There but for the grace of God go I” (and if the “g-word” doesn’t fit, substitute it with something else.) No one gets a handle on now or the future free and clear nor alone: subsidies are exactly what may be needed here (or tax breaks) and you might just be the next person who needs one.

Bill February 25, 2015 at 2:42 pm

@Ann Romanello, I wasn’t referencing your specific issue with Dreamy Hollow. I could not care less about that community. I’m referencing subsidizing people’s taxes and mortgages so they can continue to live in a high cost area. You are free to sell or not sell; I couldn’t care less.

@Suzanne, If taxes and utility costs are going up too much you need to go to the source (public sector and private sector utility unions), and tell them to take a reasonable wage (not $100k-$200k for a job that doesn’t require a Masters). When you have to over pay for their salaries, your payments for taxes and utilities go up, it is not up to us middle and upper middle class taxpayers to subsidize your lifestyle when your beef is really with the unions 😉

M. Murray's February 25, 2015 at 3:03 pm

If the property values go up and people can no longer afford to keep the homes they own, I would think that they could sell their homes at a profit and purchase cheaper homes somewhere else and keep the profit. Isn’t that how this country was developed? People couldn’t laffird to live in one area or jobs were scarce so they went to where the jobs and opportunity exist and settle there?

Ann Romanello February 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm

I am troubled by some of the comments on this board. The greed and willingness to discard people is appalling. Remember ‘whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers…’. Bill, we should all care about everyone else. This is after all a society. Some have more, some have less. No one however, is better than anyone else. We have hands that can either lift people up, or push them down. I choose the former.

Bill February 25, 2015 at 6:24 pm

I choose to support charities, I don’t choose to subsidize someone’s lifestyle with my tax dollars. I am not pushing anyone down, by saying no thanks to subsidizing their unaffordable lifestyle, rather, they are pushing me down by saying I have to pay for their poor geographic choices. They have a choice, move to where they can afford to live; obviously CT is not affordable to them, probably North Carolina and Texas are…best of luck 😉

parent & taxpayer February 26, 2015 at 8:09 am

Bill; morally and ethically, no one should expect some one to support them. They should expect their tax dollars to be used to support them instead of subsidizing development with tax abatements and reassessment that will benefit non-Norwalk investors. There is a fair housing office in Norwalk for a reason. In short, if people are contributing to Norwalk, they deserve to stay in a community that you hold so dear. In some cases, when you force out home owners, we force out the business they own as well. No one is against developing the vacant lots festooned around Norwalk; but affordable housing that already exists should be maintained and where possible increased.

Bill February 26, 2015 at 1:27 pm

agree to disagree, I do not understand why we should all suffer because someone chooses to either not find more income or find a lower cost place to live.

Ann Romanello February 26, 2015 at 2:47 pm

Bill, just curious. How does what you’re saying make any sense since I’ve paid my mortgage, my common charges, my taxes and all my living expenses without any help from anyone. The fact that we may have to vacate our homes because wealthy investors have set their sights on it and who will essentially make it unaffordable is a disgrace. You are viewing this from a perspective I just don’t get. And no, I won’t be moving to TX or NC because my family, friends and life is here. Besides, it really does sound like it is you who belongs in the red states.

Suzanne February 26, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Bill, Ms. Romanello has paid her bills and taxes but is being thrown out of her home anyway. How is that supporting what you frivolously call a “lifestyle”?

The best comment comes from “Parent & Taxpayer.” How much does the community lose because we are the lucky ones and those who have been responsible their entire lives but are being thrown out anyway must move?

People don’t live in just a house, they live in a community. Great effort has been made in Norwalk to retain elderly people for example. Because you give to charities, which is laudable, you also pay taxes. Some believe their taxes should go to assisting people who are not vagrants nor expecting a wealthy life but who live in an area that has out-lived them.

M. Murray, your attitude is very flip and you sure don’t know much about real estate. Selling a home at a profit to afford another some place else? Aren’t you the one that is always complaining taxes are too high and housing prices are down? I dearly hope that your view is not the expectation of an entire country.

BTW, usually when someone “agrees to disagree”, it is a self-confirming idea of their views.

Bill February 27, 2015 at 12:15 am

Again, read what I wrote, not what you want to hear. I could not care less about Dreamy Hollow, those folks aren’t asking for taxpayer money, I care about people asking us to subsidize their taxes and cost of living with workforce housing. That is all.

M. Murray's February 27, 2015 at 3:54 pm

Complaining taxes are too high, yes. Complaining property values are too low, no. Property values, like cost of housing, should both be on the free enterprise system.

Canary March 2, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Mr. Collins: I did not ask for finical help but wanted to just let
you know what is happing at Dreamy Hollow a great place for
people to live at affordable housing level, thought a few who
want to sell because THEY made a mistake and mommy and daddy
will not help them out anymore. People who bought willing
and now wants others to bail them out. But unfortunately you
speak with a fork tongue.Maybe my 40 years of paying taxes in
Norwalk will be appreciated else were.Thinking Iran.

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