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South Norwalk TOD plan sparks ideas, genial pushback

Norwalk Fair Housing Commissioner Daisy Franklin speaks her mind about the South Norwalk Transit Oriented Development Plan at Tuesday's Redevelopment Agency meeting in City Hall.

Norwalk Fair Housing Commissioner Daisy Franklin speaks her mind about the South Norwalk Transit Oriented Development Plan at Tuesday’s Redevelopment Agency meeting in City Hall.

NORWALK, Conn. — Helpful suggestions mixed with resident resistance Tuesday as the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency held a public hearing on its draft South Norwalk Transit Oriented Development (TOD) Redevelopment plan.

Ideas included a right of first refusal for residents on new housing, the assertion that parking spaces drive up the cost of rent and the suggestion of a panel to look into “35-65” housing. (The Fair Housing Advisory Commission is pushing for housing for people who make between $35,000 and $65,000 a year.)

There was also some drama, as a surprise attendee was used as Exhibit A to show that community doesn’t know what’s going on, and South Norwalker-Commissioner LaTanya Langley pushed back on routine complaints made by John Mosby.

Mosby said the agency doesn’t care about South Norwalk and doesn’t understand the problems faced by low-income residents; Langely said she grew up in South Norwalk, chose to come back and isn’t the only Commissioner who cares deeply.

The plan is six years in the making, with roots in the 2011 TOD master plan, Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Tim Sheehan said. It is “in no way in its final form,” will be the topic of a joint meeting of the Zoning Commission, the Planning Commission and RDA, and won’t be finalized until sometime this summer, he said.

Mike Mushak was one of the first speakers, presaging some of the comments that came later with a preemptive strike on objections.

“South Norwalk can do two things: have a plan, which is the TOD plan that controls the growth, or not have a plan and let market forces range,” Mushak said. “… Developers, they sometimes will buy up pieces of property under different names and all of a sudden you have a neighborhood that is gone. This happens. The TOD plan doesn’t allow that, it actually controls the growth. “

No plan leads to “gentrification faster than you can say ‘Brooklyn,’” Mushak said.

Norwalk Fair Housing Officer Margaret Suib took aim at the draft plan’s research, which shows that new housing will attract people who are less than 35 years old and older than 57.

That’s not who is in South Norwalk now and if the goal is to retain residents then there have to be changes, she said. The current housing stock of small buildings features many apartments with up to four bedrooms while new developments typically have a maximum 2-bedroom apartment size.

RDA is buying small building and fixing them up, and, “Why not offer those units back to the people who have lived there or other people living in the neighborhood?” she asked, advocating for a right of first refusal for the residents.

The mayor could create a 35-65 housing panel as part of the plan to come up with concrete solutions instead of vague goals, Suib said.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said TOD could be anywhere with the creation of new bus lines, and 35-65 housing should be scattered throughout Norwalk, she said. There is a non-profit developer who is interested in such infill housing.

“TOD can be broader than South Norwalk,” she said.

Dom Palladino said he grew up in South Norwalk, and the word “redevelopment” always made the hair on the back of his neck stand up because it always seemed the agency was after his father’s repair shop.

“We just want to be part of the progress. We were down there when it was nothing, now we want to be here when it’s something,” he said.

Fair Housing Commissioner Daisy Franklin said she had been to a seminar, where everyone talked about low-rental housing as a need.

“Nationally, there’s a shortage of low-rental housing. … My concern is we are losing low-rental housing, and the character of Norwalk. … Gentrification might be good, but gentrification is chasing out the people who live here,” Franklin said.

Sheehan said the state statute for affordable housing, 8-30g, is cumbersome and results in a significantly lower income threshold than $70,000.

But, “I don’t disagree with that. The issue is how best to structure it,” he said.

Redevelopment Agency Chairman Felix Serrano said the public hearing was important, so these things could be heard.

“Way back when,” there were 400 jobs for the poor people, Mosby said, naming Perkin-Elmer, United States Surgical and Norden Systems.

“You are making a mistake. … You are not fixing up for the poor people,” Mosby said.

“We built Norwalk, now the people coming, they taking over Norwalk, and no one wants to listen to us,” Mosby said.

“You’ve got to get some Hispanic here. … We the blacks. … Yes, indeed, the blacks was run out of this town,” Mosby said.

The draft plan calls for requiring developers of housing buildings with 12 units or more to contribute 10 percent of their units to workforce housing, Sheehan said last week.

Former Mayor Bill Collins on Tuesday called that “wonderful” as the regulation is currently for a developer of a building with 20 or more units but, “If a developer is proposing a project of under 12 units, he gets off Scot free,” he said.

A developer could build 11-unit buildings in a block under different names, he said.

“If you have a threshold like that, anybody that divides their project, – and we have good lawyers in town, they find ways to do these things – doesn’t have to pay anything,” Collins said, calling it a “very serious flaw.”

Requiring developers of all sizes to contribute money for affordable housing would bypass this, he said.

“I understand the Zoning Commission has turned a blind eye to that kind of recommendation in the past and I expect that the Agency made that plain to the consultants that put this together. … But times change,” Collins said.

There will likely be turnover on the Zoning and Planning Commissions come July 1, he said.

“Not to include it as an option in the plan seems to me hard to explain,” Collins said.

Diane Lauricella also brought up changes in zoning.

“Their director left, retired early, shall we say, in polite company,” she said, advocating for an elimination of “silos” in City Hall.

“The structure of the city of Norwalk stinks in many ways,” Lauricella said, asserting that the TOD plan will not be carried out without an overhaul of city government.

Colin Grotheer said that research shows that the minimum parking requirements add $250 to $350 to a monthly rent, because the spaces cost the developer money to build.

“That is making apartments by default less affordable, so there might be a less need for as much  affordable housing if you required less parking. There are many areas of the country that are leaning toward parking maximums as opposed to minimums,” Grotheer said.

Collins got up to say something had happened.

He had been driving around South Norwalk very slowly that afternoon, sizing things up in preparation for the meeting, and a man had come over to ask he if needed help, he said.

He had explained what he was up to, and, son of a gun, the man had just showed up at the meeting.

“He showed up, he came here on his own,” Collins said. “It makes me think how we go about notifying people in neighborhood where there is meetings coming up that are very important to them. … It’s quite possible that we should be tacking things up on fences and taping them up on phone poles.”

Edgar Hendrickson went on to complain about the quality of life on Chestnut Street, with noise well before the legal time of 7 a.m.

“I spent a lot of money on my house but all these things coming and crowding me,” he said, describing a “BAM, BAM, BAM,” even when his wife is sick.

“It mess you up,” he said.

There should be letters about issues of concern but there are none, he said.

“Nobody invite me. The system is bad for the small man. This is what is happening, development is good for Norwalk but at the same time don’t kick the small man,” Hendrickson said.

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency member Latanya Langley addresses her South Norwalk elders Tuesday in City Hall.

Norwalk Redevelopment Agency member Latanya Langley addresses her South Norwalk elders Tuesday in City Hall.

Before the hearing ended, Langely answered Mosby, pointing out that she is a black person on the Agency. Serrano pointed out that he is Hispanic.

“I am from South Norwalk. I was raised in South Norwalk. There are people in this room that were part of my growth in South Norwalk,” Langley said.

Her mother worked at Norden and Perkin-Elmer, she said.

“Be very, very careful when you get up in a forum and you say no one hears you and no one cares,” Langley said. “Because the people that you created and that you made, we are here. You were a part of who created me, so don’t doubt yourself.”

“All of us hear you and we have long dialogues about these issues,” Langley said. “Let me be clear, this is not an issue that we take lightly. We will look at all the comments that you brought here tonight. We will talk them through and we will work with you on them. So Just to be clear I hear and I know my fellow commissioners do as well.”

Mosby said he respected her but all the jobs were gone.

“Your point is taken but keep in mind there are people who care,” Langley said.

Ernie Dumas spoke up.

“I am not here for any sarcasm, whatsoever,” Dumas said. “I am here to talk about the facts of life, and the quality of life in South Norwalk. I am also going to talk to you about, if you don’t water a flower, it dies. This means that if you don’t talk to your community, as you sit on that Board, and talk to your community and allow your community to understand what is going on in their city, then it dies.”

“This is the point of the process,” Serrano said. “We want to hear from the community, and we will follow up accordingly.”

TOD Redevelopment Plan Draft for Public Comment 2.25.16

2 comments

Margaret K. Suib, Esq. April 13, 2016 at 11:34 am

Nice coverage of this important story as we anticipate changes to South Norwalk because private developers see what a valuable area this is.

Development in Norwalk over the last many years, regardless of its goals, has had the effect of sweeping people of low-moderate income out of Norwalk. This is true going back to the old Webster Street neighborhood right up until today, for the Reed-Putnam area, which once was a thriving neighborhood of many housing units. Assuming the mall is built, there will be 0 housing units, with no requirement for the mall developer to provide housing units elsewhere, a huge lost opportunity.

Thus, it is not enough to have a “goal” to prevent the displacement of current residents. Without an actual plan, a “goal” is only a wish.

A glaring issue exists in this plan: the TOD plan being considered now, in 2016, is a plan for 10 years going forward (from whenever it is passed). It was begun in 2009, with public meetings in 2010-11, and is based upon development priorities set by the City in 2008 in a document called the Plan for Conservation and Development (POCD).

The POCD is supposed to be the “Master Plan”, and all the mini-plans need to refer to and support the City’s policy priorities as set forth in the POCD.

Are we really going to have a Transit Oriented District Plan, for years 2017-2027, based upon 2008 priorities, which, by the way, did NOT include housing as a priority? This makes no sense.

Many of us also know the value of the Transit Oriented District area, especially the value of its residents. We know this is a long-term, stable rental neighborhood, where generations of Norwalkers have lived.

The Norwalk I want to continue living in respects the people who live in the TOD area and recognizes and appreciates that their value to our community cannot be measured in their incomes. That is my personal view and experience.

From a legal point of view, if we do nothing to prevent the loss of housing that is actually affordable to the residents of the TOD area, if we allow development to proceed in such a way that the population of the area changes resulting in many fewer African American and Latinos (and we know that will happen if development doesn’t include housing for people in the $35,000 to $65,000 income range), then the development actions and policies will have a disparate impact on people of color. That would be a major Fair Housing violation by the City.

Such a disparate impact, the sweeping out of minority residents from what is now a “minority-majority” neighborhood, is completely avoidable.

How? We plan (not just set as a goal or a desire) – we plan to include 35-65 housing (which is housing for people earning $35,000 to $65,000). In fact, we should plan to add such housing throughout Norwalk, as “in-fill” development (small parcels, of 2-4 family housing).

Workforce housing, which we advocated for in the past, serves people earning more.

Workforce housing is for people earning 80% (typically) of state median income. As of March 28, 2016, HUD announced that Connecticut state median income for a family of four is $87,800 (the Stamford-Norwalk area median income is $131,300, believe it or not). If we take 80% of state median income — we get $70,240. HUD calls that “uncapped”, because it is a straight math equation, without an imposed limitation.

For some of HUD’s programs, they use the “capped” 80% median income, which as of March 28, 2016 is $65,700.

Norwalk’s other programs — CDBG, Homeownership, Weatherization, Rehabilitation — none of them use this lower capped amount.

Norwalk’s Workforce Housing regulation does not specify whether we use the capped or uncapped 80% state median income, the $65,700 or $70,240. Since our regulation says we use 80% of state median income as published by the Census Bureau and HUD, I think we use the “uncapped”, since the Census Bureau doesn’t have a “capped” concept.

But you know what? This is a false issue because both of those figures are well above the range of incomes that a 35-65 housing plan will address. So whether you use “capped” or “uncapped ($65,700 or $70,240, respectively), it’s higher than the 35-65 income group that needs to be protected and served in South Norwalk and TOD.

It is not a choice of no plan or this particular plan: we can make a plan that serves the people of Norwalk, the residents’ interests, and protects residents from the negative effects of the pressure of private development whose primary goal is the maximization of profit, not what is best for the local residents.

Without such protections, the costs of living in the area will go up substantially and lower-moderate income residents, predominantly people of color (but also white people, senior citizens and the disabled), will be pushed out of Norwalk.

I hope a 35-65 Housing Panel will be formed so that these concerns are a part of our planning, not comments upon occasion at public meetings.

Thanks,
Margaret K. Suib, Esq.
Norwalk Fair Housing Officer

Bill NIghtingale Jr April 14, 2016 at 2:45 pm

As a taxpayer and homeowner in Norwalk I say No Thanks to all of this. If I could I would vote to abolish the Redevelopment Agency and to abolish Margaret Suib’s job. But apparently both are shielded from voter accountability.

The Plan for Conservation and Development (POCD) that Ms Suib dismisses was put together by the entire City of Norwalk and represents the actual interest of the entire city – not just the affordable housing special interest complex from South Norwalk and the Redevelopment Agency.

If you want a pro affordable housing document just check out the HUD mandated Consolidated Plan produced by non other than our pro-affordable housing government entity – the Redevelopment Agency. This is a report produced by a consultant paid for by the Redevelopment Agency and mandated by HUD with no input form the wider city except a couple public hearings by the Redevelopment Agency – and we all know how well those are advertised and attended.

But anyway, the Consolidated plan, along with the Redevelopment Agency and Margaret Suib (on our tax dollars) as well as the recipients of affordable housing in South Norwalk are always calling for more affordable housing in South Norwalk. However, this makes no sense because South Norwalk is by definition already a neighborhood comprised of affordable housing units, housing projects and otherwise the least expensive housing of all Norwalk neighborhoods.

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