Westport lags behind neighboring towns in affordable housing
WESTPORT — A municipality in Connecticut can achieve a moratorium on affordable housing if it proves to the state that 2 percent of all residential dwellings in the town are affordable. Westport has not met the affordable housing requirements necessary to achieve a moratorium, while Darien and New Canaan have.
“The (Planning and Zoning) Commission’s primary goal is to provide affordable housing, as the need has been demonstrated by our Human Services Department, the Westport Housing Authority, local nonprofits and others,” Planning and Zoning Director Mary Young said. “Achieving a moratorium is not the ‘end-goal,’ but would be beneficial, in my opinion, so that the commission, not a developer, can craft in what form, shape, scale, etc., an affordable housing development may take.”
Because Westport has not achieved a moratorium on affordable housing pursuant to 8-30g of the Connecticut General Statutes, developers can in part ignore zoning laws, such as height and size limitations, so long as the proposed project contains a minimum of 30 percent affordable housing.
“My issue with the law is that it permits outside developers to come in and really change the character and feeling of a town because they can bypass local laws,” said Danielle Dobin, Democratic zoning commissioner and chairwoman of the commission’s Subcommittee on Affordable Housing.
“People live here because they want a more bucolic, New England, coastal village feel, so it’s sad to all of a sudden not have the people in town be able to control what’s built there,” Dobin said.
Dobin said the commission wants to achieve a moratorium in order to prevent outside developers from constructing projects of which the commission doesn’t approve.
“The number of housing unit-equivalent points Westport needs to qualify for a moratorium is 208,” Katherine Daniel, deputy planning and zoning director, wrote in a Sept. 20 memorandum, “Achieving a Moratorium on Affordable Housing.”
“Currently our office estimates that we have 153 housing unit-equivalent points,” Daniel wrote.
Points are allotted based on two factors: “Whether they are rentals or for sale (rentals are accorded higher points) and what level of affordability are they restricted to by deed (80 percent, 60 percent or 40 percent of State Median Income).”
A certificate of occupancy needs to be issued for a municipality to receive points toward the moratorium for an affordable dwelling.
“We will meet our first moratorium point requirements in the next 12 to 18 months because of projects that are currently under development,” Dobin said.
If Westport reaches 208 housing unit-equivalent points, it will be able to apply for a four-year moratorium.
“A subsequent moratorium can be applied for as soon as new affordable units not counted toward the first moratorium are constructed and receive certificates of occupancy in sufficient numbers and at affordability levels that can be accorded an additional 208 points,” Daniel wrote.
Darien and New Canaan have employed the strategy of racking up moratorium points and have moratoriums that don’t expire until 2020 and 2021, respectively.
“Darien and New Canaan looked at the state law and decided we can either choose to put affordable housing projects where we want them or we can have developers come in and bypass our laws to do things that are oversized or overly dense for where they’re going to be,” Dobin said.
The two neighboring towns, “proactively worked to rezone certain areas and work with developers to incentivize development in certain areas where they wanted it and the result was they more than met their requirements,” Dobin said.
Dobin also hopes to take a proactive approach to affordable housing in the upcoming P&Z term. “While the projects under development now will help us reach our first moratorium, I’m interested in using that time productively to work on what we’re going to create in the future so Westport and Westporters are in the driver’s seat in terms of what’s developed here,” Dobin said.
“What Michael, Greg, Paul and I want to do is have a communitywide conversation in the next few months about how to proactively plan for the next ones,” Dobin said of her three fellow Democratic members, Michael Cammeyer, Greg Rutstein and Paul Lebowitz, on the seven-person commission.
“In Westport, we actually have a tremendous amount of affordable housing, truly affordable housing, that doesn’t count towards any points,” Dobin said in reference to Westport’s Homes with Hope homeless shelter that doesn’t count for affordable housing moratorium points.
P&Z Chairwoman Cathy Walsh, a Republican, agrees Westport’s lack of affordable housing, according to 8-30g criteria, relative to Darien and New Canaan, doesn’t tell the whole picture. “I think it’s a false comparison,” Walsh said.
One of Walsh’s frustrations with the 8-30g law, which went into effect in 1989, is that only units constructed after July 1, 1990, count for moratorium points.
“There’s affordable housing already in existence in Westport, and it is affordable, but it doesn’t count,” Walsh said.