Before he shared his suggestion, Richard Freedman warned Zoom viewers that it was “radical.”
He offered it during a virtual public hearing on Stamford’s affordable housing plan, due to the state on June 1.
Freedman, a for-profit developer who also creates affordable housing through his family’s non-profit foundation, said Stamford provides about 40 percent of the below market rate units in the region.
Amid a state mandate for housing accessible to all income levels, Stamford has done “more than its fair share,” Freedman told the Stamford Planning Board, host of the hearing.
Surrounding towns have not, he said.
Stamford exceeds the state requirement that at least 10 percent of a town’s housing stock classify as affordable, but Connecticut Department of Housing data shows that New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and others don’t come close.
Freedman’s unconventional idea was this: Stamford should start a special fund and draw on it to build affordable housing in surrounding towns.
“This would not lessen Stamford’s commitment to affordable housing. We would be using our bully pulpit to encourage more, and give towns opportunities to meet their requirements,” said Freedman, an elected member of Stamford’s Board of Finance. “Affordable housing needs to be more dispersed throughout the region.”
The response on Zoom?
“Yeah, it got pretty quiet,” Freedman said after the hearing.
He wasn’t surprised.
“I can see where people in Stamford would want the money to go into affordable housing for Stamford residents. And I don’t think the New Canaans of the world would think it’s helpful,” he said. “But there’s been ample discussion in Hartford and around the state that affordable housing is not distributed equitably.”
Stamford has “created more affordable housing than any other municipality in the state, except maybe Hartford,” Freedman said. “Certainly in Fairfield County, Stamford and Norwalk have built the vast majority of affordable housing since 1992, when the state first started to count the number of units in each town. New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich, Westport, Redding, Easton, Weston and others have created trace amounts.”
He said about a quarter of the people renting affordable units in a project he developed in Stamford work in New Canaan, Darien, Greenwich and similar towns with little workforce housing.
Calls to Stamford’s closest neighbors, however, suggest that his concept might not be embraced.
New Canaan Town Planner Lynn Brooks Avni didn’t return an email asking her to respond to the idea.
Darien Director of Land Use Jeremy Ginsberg said he had no comment on Freedman’s suggestion, or on a regional approach to affordable housing.
Greenwich Planning & Zoning Commission Chair Margarita Alban said the town has taken another approach to thinking regionally. Development “should incorporate sustainability concepts,” Alban said.
“Key among these is creating ‘right-priced’ housing near job opportunities. Shorter commutes serve to reduce carbon emissions and hopefully engender better life quality for workers,” Alban said.
The town has data showing that higher- and lower-income individuals commute to work in Greenwich, so it’s not just about housing affordability, Alban said.
“We intend to dig deeper into the question of why workers are choosing longer commutes,” she said.
The data also shows that some high-earning households are cost burdened, meaning more than 30 percent of income goes to housing. It’s usually associated with lower-income households.
“Is it a question of housing inventory being scarce at many price levels, or do people tend to ‘stretch’ their income for housing? We will consider all these housing-related issues as we strive to contribute to economic vitality and sustainability both municipally and regionally,” Alban said.
The town recently established an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, modeled after the one in Stamford.
It may be better to establish a regional housing fund, an idea posited by the Western Connecticut Council of Governments, which promotes cooperation among its 18 member towns from Greenwich, east to Westport, and north to New Milford.
‘We say we are stronger together than we are trying to do things on our own,” WestCOG Executive Director Francis Pickering said.
The organization provides data analysis and policy options for towns to consider as they develop state-mandated plans for creating affordable housing. Solutions may lie in regional approaches, Pickering said.
“Jobs are a major driver of housing costs, and Fairfield County is being lifted by the New York tide. If we could take some of the job growth in southwest Connecticut and scatter those jobs [up the line,] people would not have to get on the highway,” Pickering said. “If we can get the rest of the state to grow faster, and get Fairfield County to grow at a more moderate rate, we’d have less traffic, we’d raise home values in depressed areas and lower home values in areas where they are inflated.”
It would create a more economically equitable Connecticut, Pickering said.
It’s in towns’ interests to cooperate, Freedman said, because Connecticut law is bent toward expanding affordable housing.
The law says that, in towns where less than 10 percent of housing units are affordable, developers building residential structures with at least 30 percent affordable units can skirt zoning regulations.
The law puts developers in charge, but it also gives towns an out. It says that if a town creates a calculated number of affordable units within a certain time, the developer prerogative is frozen for four years. That’s called a moratorium.
But there is a caveat that Freedman did not bring up when he broached his crossing-town-barriers idea during the Zoom hearing.
“As a developer you can bypass a moratorium if you have a project with fewer than 40 units and it receives funding from any form of government – city, state or federal,” Freedman said. “So if you have funding from the City of Stamford, you can go to a town and say, ‘I’m here to build 40 units and I am not subject to your moratorium.’ It would be a way for Stamford to use its money to create more affordable housing in the region.”