Below-Market-Rate Housing in Stamford, a Model, and ‘a Mess’

Share

TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

Housing was a hot topic in this year’s almost-ended legislative session at the state capitol.

Advocates pushed for measures to increase the amount of affordable housing in Connecticut, one of the most expensive places to live in the country.

Towns pushed back, saying they will fight to preserve their character, particularly since developers are taking advantage of a law that allows them to bypass local zoning regulations if they build projects with a certain percentage of affordable units. 

Each municipality now is working on a plan – due to the state on June 30 – for how it will boost housing affordability.

In the brouhaha, one Fairfield County municipality has been cited for success.

Stamford’s Below Market Rate program is responsible for most of the affordable apartments constructed in the region in the last decade, lawmakers have said.

As of 2020, at least 1,035 units were built through the BMR program, said Lauren Meyer, a spokeswoman for Mayor Caroline Simmons.

Under the program, new residential developments with 10 or more units must assign 10 percent as below market rate for the life of the building. BMR units are priced at a percentage of the area median income.

BMR units must look no different from market-rate units and must be dispersed throughout the building. 

BMR tenants are allowed access to all amenities. The cost of their rent, fees and basic utilities cannot exceed 30 percent of their income, and they must be recertified each year to ensure they meet the thresholds. 

But the program is not without problems, and a draft of a Stamford housing study released late last year suggested that it needs work. 

Administration of the program is scattered, the study found, and staffing is inadequate. Information is not centralized, so it’s difficult to track how many BMR units are coming online and how many prospective tenants are on waiting lists. Tenants don’t know where to apply, the study found.

Tenants don’t understand a lot of things, said Dorothy G., who lives in one of the 24 BMR units at Infinity, a high-rise in Harbor Point.

Dorothy said she and her husband, a military veteran, must be out of their apartment by May 2. They have lived in a two-bedroom unit at Infinity since it opened 10 years ago, Dorothy said.

The family lost income when her husband’s hours were cut, and has grown from two children to four, exceeding occupancy limits for the apartment, Dorothy said.

“They told us we have to go, and we stopped paying rent. They served us with papers and now we owe legal fees,” Dorothy said. “We’ve been looking for a new place but everything is so expensive. I didn’t know what to do. So I just kind of sat.”

It took a long time to get a BMR unit in the first place – she was on a waiting list for a year, said Dorothy. And she thought that once you’re in the program, you’re in.

“But I don’t know,” she said. “There used to be a BMR office, and there was a woman there who helped you. But the office closed. Now I think Infinity is in charge of BMR for this building.” 

It’s true. Infinity runs its BMR program, overseen by the city Land Use Bureau, Meyer said. 

Emily Gordon, director of Housing and Community Development, is in charge of oversight, according to Meyer. Among other duties, Gordon “supports and manages the compliance of the Below Market Rate program, the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and any planning related to housing,” said Meyer.

According to BMR regulations, the city may, at the discretion of the Zoning Board and with approval from the law department, manage BMR units or delegate management to another party.

Five buildings contract with Charter Oak Communities, the city’s housing authority, to run their BMR programs, but many other buildings handle it themselves.

That’s a problem, another Infinity BMR tenant said. Infinity, owned and managed by real estate investment and management firm AJH of Lakewood, N.J., controls everything, the tenant said. 

AJH made an error on her income and she had to find someone in the city to correct it so she would continue to qualify for her unit, the tenant said. She had another issue with this year’s lease, she said.

“Months ago they asked me for my paperwork – accounts, bank statements, pay stubs – to see if I still qualify. But they didn’t send me a lease,” the woman said. “I just recently got it. They don’t tell you anything. You’re always in limbo. I want peace. This is my home. Give me my lease when I qualify.”

Under the regulations, AJH Management has the authority to determine whether a BMR tenant meets the income requirements, Meyer said. The Land Use Bureau ensures that companies such as AJH comply with BMR regulations. Failure to comply can result in a zoning citation, but Gordon first tries to remedy problems between companies and tenants, Meyer said.

A person at an AJH office in New Jersey said a manager would return a request for comment, but no one did.

Attorney Haldan Connor said he has a client who is slated to be evicted from a BMR unit at Infinity on April 30. His client meets the income requirements and pays the rent, but failed to complete recertification paperwork, Connor said.

“Infinity went to her and said, ‘You have to do this paperwork.’ She didn’t, and they figure that gave them the right to evict her,” Connor said. “I can’t find anything in state law addressing this. It’s basically a jurisdictional issue.”

There may be something, though, in the BMR regulations that answers a question for Dorothy. It says BMR tenants may apply for a different unit if they no longer meet the requirements of the unit assigned to them, “for example because of a change in family size or income.”

Dorothy said the complaint-driven system works only if you contact someone, and it’s the right someone.

“I reached out to so many individuals, but they said they were too swamped, or I had to call a different person,” Dorothy said. “It’s a mess.”


Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 733-6811

a.carella@ctexaminer.com