Ridgefield — A crisis in affordable housing, a struggling economy and rising gas prices are creating a slow-but-steady shift in some of Connecticut’s wealthiest areas: its small-town suburbs.
Faced with a demand for smaller, more energy-efficient homes or rental housing even in these areas, developers are taking advantage of a law that’s been on Connecticut’s books since 1990 to build high-density apartment complexes in areas where almost none exist. Known as 8-30G, the statute allows developers who build affordable units to override local zoning codes in towns where less than 10 percent of the housing stock is deemed affordable.
Since January, four developers in Ridgefield have gotten approval to build a total of 39 new rental units in town, a portion of which will be dedicated to affordable housing — and the neighbors aren’t happy about it.
“I would have liked to feel that I have some kind of community, where we can have some control,” said Amale Hawi, who lives around the corner from a future development on Gilbert Street, where eight units will be built on one-third of an acre. That is 24 times the density of the surrounding neighborhood, where single-family houses like Hawi’s rest on 1-acre lots.
Hawi lives in a 2,400-square-foot house that she and her husband expanded when they moved here 12 years ago. Part of the charm of her neighborhood, she said, is that some of the families have lived in the same house for generations.
The new building on Gilbert Street, she said, could “destroy the character of the town … It’s not clear where people are going to park, there’s no green space, there’s nothing.”
In the past several months as many as 80 people have shown up at Planning and Zoning meetings to voice their concerns about traffic and sewers that are already at capacity, and a petition protesting the new developments got more than 600 signatures.
But members of the PNZ commission approved all of the plans, saying their hands were tied. If developers use 8-30G in places like Ridgefield, where only 2 percent of the current housing stock is considered affordable, it’s the town’s burden to prove that the new housing is a threat to health and safety. That usually involves an expensive lawsuit that’s hard to win.
The town is now applying for a moratorium on 8-30G applications, although Town Planner Betty Brosius said it could be months before she’s ready to submit the application to the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development. Darien won a moratorium from DECD in 2010 after months of wrangling.
“The law was developed with very good intentions,” Brosius said. “Unfortunately it’s not well-received bythose who happen to live next door to one of those proposed projects.”
Bob Jewell, a lawyer who represents the Gilbert Street developer Dany LeTourneau and others who have submitted 8-30G applications, called neighbors’ fears overblown.
“I have trouble taking anything they say seriously except for NIMBY,” he said, referring to the term “not in my backyard.”
Jewell said the time is ripe for apartment-style developments in Ridgefield, as the need increases for more affordable housing in response to continued growth in the Danbury region. At the same time, he said he understands some of the residents’ concerns.
“As an individual, I don’t like the concept of 8-30G. It’s a state statute that interferes with the sovereignty of towns,” he said.
“But at the same time, it is the law, and it applies with equal force as any other law.”
Changing growth patterns and a changing housing market
First Selectman Rudy Marconi has lived in Ridgefield for decades. He lived here when there were just a few thousand people; now the population is just shy of 25,000. Most of that growth happened in the 1960s and ’70s, as people fled the cities for green open space and country houses.
But such suburban sprawl appears to be in reversal now. While the smaller towns in the Housatonic Valley have grown through the recession — unlike most other areas of Connecticut — their growth rate is considerably slower than the economic engine of Danbury, whose population grew by 8 percent between 2000 and 2010. Such patterns reflect a national trend: For the first time in decades, big cities are growing faster than their surrounding suburbs, according to U.S. Census data.
That trend is expected to continue, says the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials, a regional planning agency. Ridgefield is expected to add about 3,000 people by 2030, while Danbury is projected to add about 9,000 to its 2010 population of 81,000.
The new migration to cities represents increasing interest in a walkable, bikeable lifestyle — and less expensive housing.
Commuting patterns tell the same story. In 1970, 89 percent of people who lived in the Housatonic Valley also worked there. In 2009, that number was 68 percent. For Ridgefield alone, the percentage declined from 69 percent to 54 percent.
“About a quarter of the people that enter the region every day come in from the east where the housing is cheaper in the Waterbury area,” said Jonathan Chew, the Housatonic planning agency’s executive director.
The housing market seems to have responded accordingly. In Ridgefield, the percentage of single-family homes out of the total housing stock declined from 96 percent to 85 percent between 1960 and 2006. Marconi said homes now sell for $400,000 to $500,000, compared with twice that in 2005, when prices began to decline even before the housing bust.
“The million-dollar homes don’t sell,” Marconi said. “They sit on the market for 300-400 days.”
At the same time, rents all over the region have steadily increased. Today, an affordable rental unit as defined by federal standards would be $1,500 per month for a two-bedroom. In 2001, the maximum rent for such an apartment was $961. (Appropriate rents for 8-30G affordable units are priced based on the state’s median income, which is $53,000. So monthly rentals for those earning 60 percent of the state’s median income would be $1,064 and $1,463 for those earning 80 percent.)
Marconi said he understands that newcomers to Ridgefield want smaller, more energy-efficient houses or rental apartments.
“We need to come up with a more diverse type of housing that can accommodate everyone, rather than just accommodating the person who wants to move to the country to raise a family,” he said.
But town officials and residents want affordable housing done their way.
“The 8-30G is a meat-axe approach,” said Chew. “Whack!” He slapped the table in his Brookfield office for emphasis. “That spot is going to double its density. Whereas the town plan had been thought out over years [about] how everything should go… oh, I don’t care. Whack!”
Who do we want to be?
HVCEO has tried to fight the application of 8-30G in the region since the 1990s. Chew said he likes a newer approach by the state that offers towns planning grants to create “Incentive Housing Zones,” or areas with new developments where a portion of housing would be affordable. Instead of a developer coming in and “throwing the zoning codes away,” as Marconi described, incentive housing zones let the town work with a builder to come up with a plan.
But few places in the Housatonic Valley have applied for incentive housing zones so far, and the state program has only just started to revive itself after the housing market crash. Marconi said Ridgefield and nearby towns are pushing to build affordable housing developments near mass transit, a principle known as transit-oriented development (TOD).
“If we’re not going to have the cities where you can live and walk to work, and you want the suburbs to take some of the responsibility, let’s do that in a smart way,” he said.
But Ridgefield has no mass transit. The nearest train station is in Branchville, in the town’s southeast corner and several miles from the downtown area. A bus runs regularly from the station to various stops along Route 7, but efforts to route it through downtown Ridgefield were unsuccessful because there wasn’t enough ridership. Plans for TOD that Marconi has been involved with, he said, all involve building housing around the Branchville station or a new station that has been approved but not yet built in Redding, just west of Ridgefield.
Some of the so-called smart-growth principles that often come along with affordable housing for the non-elderly — such as a walkable neighborhood, public transportation options and a denser populationclustered around commercial businesses — would be big changes for Ridgefield, which today stands as a classic Connecticut suburb. Seven miles of narrow roads wind between the town and any major highway, and single-family, million-dollar houses sit on lots as large as 3 acres.
“They spent a lot of money, they bought a home, they were very happy in their neighborhood,” Marconi said of current residents in Ridgefield. “And once you begin to lose your character, it is gone forever.”
But more change is imminent. Rumors are flying that more 8-30G applications will be submitted before the town has a chance to finish its plea for a moratorium. And the fate of two properties of more than 100 acres each are in doubt.
The first property, a 153-acre lot that was bought by the New York-based developers Eureka V LLC, was originally approved for 306 units in 2008. When the developer sued to build the originally proposed 500 units, a judge ruled in favor of the town because the area overlaps a watershed. But the lawsuit is still pending, and some units will most likely be built.
The second property is known as the Schlumberger property, after the company that used to operate a research center there until 2006. Ridgefield residents voted to buy the property for $7 million, including some demolition costs, in part to prevent a developer from swooping in and building more high-density housing. But there is no long-term plan for the area.
David Goldenberg, chairman of Ridgefield’s Affordable Housing Committee, said he isn’t opposed to applying for an 8-30G moratorium. But he’s pushing for the town to create a “Ridgefield 2030” task force that would include a strategic plan for affordable housing. And he hopes the recently-bought Schlumberger property will also include some rental or at least cheaper homes.
“Communities have to ask themselves, ‘what do we want to be?'” Goldenberg said. “Do we want to be exclusive enclaves, or do we want to be communities that are broadly inclusive of everybody?”
To listen to a radio version of this story, go to: http://www.yourpublicmedia.org/content/wnpr/crisis-affordable-housing-hits-connecticut-s-suburbs