WATERFORD — The town’s population is expected to shrink over the next two decades, and Waterford will need a range of housing sizes and price points to meet the needs of a changing demographic of residents in a changing world, according to a consultant’s Monday night presentation to the Planning and Zoning Commission.
Consultant Glenn Chalder of Avon-based Planimetrics said that the challenge facing the town comes from two distinct age groups: older residents seeking to downsize and young renters, many with significant student debt, seeking affordable rents.
“The issue here is that as households age, they get smaller,” Chalder told the commission. “My wife and I for example are empty nesters. We’re looking into smaller housing with a little bit more amenities on one-floor. We’re preparing and thinking about the future, and we’re not alone in that.”
Chalder said, “You also have younger people, Millennials, coming out of college these days with tremendous amounts of college debt. Their ability to get into the housing market is challenged a bit. So there are a lot of reasons that we would look to have a diverse housing portfolio to cover a lot of different housing needs.”
Chalder also suggested that Waterford’s housing market would be affected by the $22 billion submarine contract that Groton-based Electric Boat and a partner firm recently secured with the Navy.
New Plans for Waterford
Chalder has been working with town staff to research Waterford’s existing housing stock in preparation for an upcoming a revision of the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development — essentially the town’s master plan — as well as the Waterford’s first plan for affordable housing, both due in early 2022.
Waterford Planning Director Abby Piersall said these plans for housing and development are part of “a conversation that we’re having locally, that we’re having in Connecticut in the southeast region and statewide, and it’s really a national conversation.”
According to Piersall, the process offers an opportunity for the town to encourage more predictable growth.
“I think we have an opportunity here to be a bit more proactive in the way that we address housing and lay out the vision that allows us to be clear with developers and to have a predictable permitting system,” Piersall said.
The town’s current Plan of Conservation and Development was adopted in 2012, and Chalder said that he saw many of its goals remaining relevant in 2022 and beyond, with some revisions.
According to Chalder, the 2012 town plan also addressed the overarching housing goal to “encourage a variety of housing types and densities to meet the housing needs of current and future residents.”
Chalder said that the existing plan was intended to protect existing residential neighborhoods, to provide a diverse range of housing options for all age groups, to encourage flexible residential subdivision layouts, and to implement guidelines that would encourage multi-family developments to be located in areas with already dense populations and public utilities.
“The question is, if people want to live in Waterford, to stay in Waterford, do we have the housing that people want or need?” Chalder said. “That’s really the issue when we’re discussing housing and housing types in the community.”
Chalder conducted surveys of Waterford residents, and a majority responded that the town had too little rental housing for young people. Pluralities of respondents said that the town needs more affordable housing for first time homebuyers, more rental housing for families with children, and more affordable and or smaller-sized homes for senior citizens.
Single-family homes make up about 85 percent of Waterford’s current housing stock, he said. Less than 10 percent of the housing was built after 2000.
“Over 90 percent of housing stock reflects the housing needs and desires of the 90s, the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the 50s, etc,” Chalder said. “So we’ve got a housing stock which is dominated by what people felt they needed many, many years ago.”
Losing ground on affordable housing
About 1 in 3 Waterford households are “cost burdened,” Chalder said, meaning that they pay 30 percent or more of their income to housing expenses, including mortgage or rent, taxes, utilities, and insurance. This number includes residents owning their own homes.
Over the last decade Waterford has reduced the percentage of housing that meets state standards of affordability, Chalder explained.
“We’ve actually lost ground over time because more units have been built but they haven’t been affordable units and so as a result we’re falling behind,” he said.
In 2018, about 4.5 percent of Waterford’s housing stock, 386 units out of about 8,634, met the state standard of affordability, according to Chalder’s presentation. In 2002, about 5.2 percent of the town’s housing qualified as affordable.
Under state law, towns with less than 10 percent affordable housing fall under the Affordable Housing Appeals Procedure outlined in Connecticut statutes Section 8-30g, allowing new housing developments with 30 percent or more affordable units to bypass most local zoning regulations.
“That would be a very uncomfortable thing for this commission,” Chalder said. “It’s a very uncomfortable thing for commissions everywhere because the regulations are set up to reflect our desires and interests for Waterford overall, and people wouldn’t have to pay attention to them.”
Some towns have been able to get a temporary or permanent moratoriums on that appeals procedure by demonstrating progress on providing affordable housing, based on a scoring system, Chalder said.
Chalder and Piersall both encouraged the commission to see additional housing in terms of economic development, attracting more residents and expanding the town’s tax base.
Chalder noted that, with Americans having fewer children today than in previous years, more family housing units are a net positive for tax revenue — residents are paying property taxes but not sending children into the school system for services.
Proposals for revised zoning
Chalder’s report suggested several potential courses of action for the Planning and Zoning Commission to consider. Piersall said afterwards that Chalder and town staff will include feedback from the meeting into more detailed options for regulations or guidelines.
Several of the recommendations were advisory, including guidelines for potential developers on constructing affordable housing. Chalder said that the town should identify specific areas within Waterford that are suitable for multi-family housing.
Additional proposals included changes to zoning regulations to allow higher densities of housing in designated areas, to end local limits on buildings with more than 24 housing units, and to allow redevelopment of retail sites struggling in an internet-based economy.
Chalder said that the town could also require that developers designate a portion of new units for affordable housing to prevent Waterford from falling further below the state’s 10 percent goal for affordable housing.
Commission member Tim Bleasdale said he liked the idea of having an affordability requirement to keep the town from “falling farther behind.” Commission member Gregory Massad said he was opposed to that kind of mandate, but both members seemed to agree that they’d like to see more relaxed regulations for housing in or around commercial areas.
Chalder said similarly that current or former commercial areas could be well suited to redeveloping for apartments because these areas tend to have much of the necessary infrastructure already and sit on transportation lines, which he said younger renters in particular find appealing.
“Sites that had been devoted to one use may have another future as a different use,” Chalder said. “It could be walkable, pedestrian-friendly, mixed use, it could be a lot of stuff that we haven’t had the chance to do.”
Commission member John Bashaw said during the meeting that the town would have to acknowledge the reality of changing demographics, and that providing affordable housing would require changes to local regulations.
“Unless we have something in our regulations, whether a mandate or an incentive for having an affordability component to it, right now it sounds like the developers that are coming to us with proposals, they can sell them all at market-based rates.”
Piersall acknowledged several times during the meeting that other town boards and groups will be having similar discussions in the months and years to come, but this research was intended to get those conversations started.
“That will be a bigger conversation than just this group,” she said, “but somebody had to get it started to say here is the state of where we are.”