Updated Monday at 3:54 p.m. with comments from Mayor Benjamin G. Blake
Milford — Twenty-two days after the General Assembly voted to loosen the state’s affordable housing standards despite the governor’s objections, at least one community is following suit.
Last week, the Planning and Zoning Board in Milford voted 6-3 to end its existing affordable housing standards along a significant portion of the U.S. Route 1 corridor that winds along I-95.
Town officials insist the move is unrelated to the state’s decision, arguing that no multi-family housing complexes have been built along the corridor since it and four others were established in 2004. Before last week’s vote, any multi-family complexes developed along the corridor were required to have 30 percent of their units designated as affordable.
The board’s decision was prompted by a developer’s proposal to build a 168-unit apartment complex – none designated as affordable – within the corridor. It could not be authorized until the provision was repealed.
The move has drawn the ire of some state officials who earlier had warned that passing legislation to loosen the state’s 8-30g law – which pushes, but does not require, all municipalities to have 10 percent of their housing stock deemed affordable – would prompt a similar action at the local level. It also has elicited shock from members of the legislature, including some who backed the contentious 8-30g reform bill that narrowly became law last month.
In a letter sent Friday, Connecticut Housing Commissioner Evonne Klein urged Milford Mayor Benjamin G. Blake, a three-term Democrat, to denounce the planning board’s decision.
“This vote taken by the P&Z Board may be interpreted as regressive and exclusionary,” Klein wrote. “Unfortunately, a precedent was set. It was set at the expense of Milford residents who struggle monthly with their high housing costs, and at the expense of the city’s recognition as a 21st century community that is culturally and economically rich, diverse and inclusive.”
Blake declined to denounce it Monday afternoon. However, Blake said he wants to work with Klein to “make sure that we have appropriate housing stock in all communities, including Milford.”
“Our Planning and Zoning Board has to look at each application as it comes forward,” he said. “In this case, Milford has been bombarded by affordable housing applications. And part of it, I think, is that everybody – including the commissioner, I think – recognizes that there needs to be improvements in the affordable housing law.”
Joseph D. Griffith, the town’s director of permitting and land use, said developers tend to target affordable projects at zones with more restrictions on what can be built, using the 8-30g law as a tool to circumvent the town’s zoning regulations. Under 8-30g, developers are allowed to bypass local zoning laws if their project includes housing units, at least 30 percent of which are deemed affordable.
Griffith said the board’s decision came down to economics. That corridor along U.S. Route 1 – as well as the town’s four others – simply doesn’t attract many multi-family development proposals, he said.
“If a developer is looking at a property in [the corridor], that property is valuable enough that he can put in his shopping centers, his car dealerships and his other things, and it’s economically viable in such a way that he doesn’t have to include any affordable housing or any multi-family housing at all,” Griffith said. “That’s just the economics of those zones.”
Klein said choosing to roll back an affordable housing provision when a developer finally expressed interest in the area shows Milford’s rhetoric does not match its actions. She said it is “senseless.”
“8-30g is not the problem,” Klein added. “The city of Milford has had an opportunity to plan for and thoughtfully build deed-restricted affordable housing for decades.”
Over the past three years, state data show the percentage of affordable housing in Milford has declined, falling from 6.18 percent in 2013 to 5.25 percent in 2016. Griffith said it has been a result of market-rate unit development outpacing affordable development.
Milford’s zoning change comes on the heels of the General Assembly’s decision to loosen the state’s affordable housing standards as part of an 8-30g reform bill that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy vetoed.
Legislators backing the bill said they hoped loosening state law would incentivize communities – particularly mid-sized cities like Milford – to redouble their efforts to pursue more affordable housing by making certain benchmarks seem more attainable. Several other mid-sized cities, including Milford’s neighbor, West Haven, already are above the 10 percent affordable threshold.
In his three-page veto message, Malloy said the bill would “perpetuate the harmful effects of bad economic policy and institutional segregation, damaging our state’s economy and its moral foundation.”
The House and Senate voted by narrow margins last month to override Malloy’s veto, with near-unanimous support from Republicans and the backing of about one-third of all Democrats.
The new law implements several key changes to 8-30g to make it easier for towns with more than 20,000 housing units, like Milford, to reach a multi-year moratorium on unrestricted development – a provision meant to reward towns making steady progress toward the 10 percent overall threshold.
Most towns receive four-year moratoriums every time they qualify. Under the changes, mid-sized cities now receive five-year moratoriums after qualifying a second time, as well as any subsequent times.
In addition, mid-sized cities now face less of a challenge to reach moratoriums. While most municipalities need to grow their affordable housing stock by 2 percentage points to qualify, mid-sized cities now only need to grow it by 1.5 percentage points.
Alternatively, municipalities also can qualify for moratoriums by earning points when affordable housing units are built, with certain types of units being worth more points than others. The new law increases the number of points earned from many different types of units, while lowering the total number of points required to qualify by one third.
Milford gained even more from the legislation than the other mid-sized cities, because it included a provision to designate Ryder Woods – a sprawling mobile home park in the city – as an affordable development, bringing the prospect of a moratorium even closer despite past data showing a downward trend in the percentage affordable housing.
Members of Milford’s legislative delegation were among the bill’s strongest backers. Now, some legislators – including at least one from Milford – are troubled by the town’s action.
“I’m just deeply offended,” said Rep. Larry Butler, a co-chair of the legislature’s Housing Committee.
Butler, a Waterbury Democrat, voted for the bill, as well as the veto override. As one of the few urban legislators to support the bill, his backing ultimately proved instrumental in its passage. He said he believed the legislation was a compromise.
“It really sends a bad message to the all the hard work that we put into fighting for giving towns – like Milford – the ability to determine where affordable housing could be built, while helping them toward reaching moratoriums,” Butler said. “It just flies in the face of everything we passed the bill for.”
Rep. Kim Rose, D-Milford, who also voted for the bill and the override, said she shares Klein and Butler’s sentiments.
“I’m at a loss for words, to be quite honest,” Rose said. “Yes, we did fare much better in that bill than a lot of the other towns. As I tried to express to the Planning and Zoning Board at the July meeting, adding this additional housing stock to our overall housing stock – without an affordability component in it – makes it that much more difficult to ever reach 10 percent.”
“With Ryder mobile home park now allowed, this basically wipes it out,” she added.
Blake said he is not concerned about the impact the new development might have on the city’s ability to receive a moratorium.
“Those units don’t get counted until they’re built,” he said. “And I’m pretty confident that Milford has enough affordable units in our inventory – if it’s counted fairly – to meet the requirement under the law.”
The three other members of Milford’s state legislative delegation – as well as Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, another co-chair of the Housing Committee – did not immediately respond to requests for comment.