State officials applaud a Stamford program for providing most of the affordable housing units built in Fairfield County in the last decade.
The Below Market Rate Program has created well over 1,000 units by requiring developers of projects with at least 10 apartments to designate 10 percent of them as affordable.
It means that a landlord who can fetch $2,700 a month for a one-bedroom unit on the 2022 market may charge only about $1,700 for that unit at below-market rate.
It’s a beautiful program for residents who earn significantly less than the area median income, said Janine McCaskill, a Stamford mother of two and customer service representative at a health insurance company.
But navigating it is ugly.
“Instead of going higher on the waiting lists, I’m falling lower,” said McCaskill, who for a year has had her name on multiple lists for a BMR unit. “It’s so confusing. I’m at my wit’s end.”
Forty-two buildings in Stamford offer BMR apartment rentals, according to the website for the program. McCaskill, so far, has filed applications with five or six buildings.
“I’ve lost count,” she said.
Using the application portal provided by Charter Oak Communities, Stamford’s housing authority, McCaskill tracks her status in each building.
Last year she was 41st in line at Escape, a building with 17 BMR units in the Harbor Point development on the South End.
“But now I’m 46 on that list,” McCaskill said.
Last year she was 40th on the waiting list at Allure, a Harbor Point building with 44 BMR units.
“Today it says my number is 62,” McCaskill said.
She gets more perplexed when she thinks of a call she got a few months ago.
“It was a Charter Oak person telling me they got to my name on the list for one of the buildings. I was so excited. But the next day they called and said, ‘Oh, sorry, we made a mistake, you weren’t selected,’” McCaskill said. “I asked her, ‘How can that happen?’ She told me people who live or work in the South End, where this building is, get preference. They bump people who don’t live or work there.”
That’s true for certain buildings, said Natalie Coard, executive director of Charter Oak Communities. It depends on the building’s Affordability Plan, Coard said.
“Each building negotiated their own plan with the city,” Coard said. “We manage the BMR program for those buildings that contract with us to do that, according to their individual Affordability Plan.”
Developer Building and Land Technology, which is constructing most of the apartments in Harbor Point, created Affordability Plans that give preference to BMR applicants who live or work in the South End. Coard said it is a reaction to criticism from South End residents displaced when BLT bought up properties in the once-industrial neighborhood to build its luxury high-rises.
“People felt like BLT was moving people out of the South End, so this was meant to give people an opportunity to continue to live in the South End,” Coard said. “It was supposed to be a good thing for those who live there, but it can make it difficult for other people trying to get into the BMR program.”
The program offers a hand up for people who don’t earn the area median income as determined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. For 2022, HUD set that income for the Stamford area at a whopping $180,900 for a family of four.
Most BMR units are one- or two-bedroom apartments with rents affordable to heads of households earning half that amount.
In 2022, rent for a one-bedroom BMR unit can’t be more than $1,696 a month; and $2,035 for a two-bedroom. Market-rate rents start at $1,000 a month more than that, and can go much higher.
BMR is not a subsidized program. It requires that building owners simply accept lower rents for the designated units, Coard said.
The program exists in an ever less affordable landscape – HUD’s area median income for 2022 is nearly 20 percent more than last year, said Vincent Tufo, chief executive officer of Charter Oak Communities.
“A landlord can now, on renewal of a lease, raise the rent by a factor of 20 percent, because now the area median income has given the basis to calculate that,” Tufo said. “For a lot of residents on limited incomes, it means they are going to have to move.”
City officials are asking landlords to raise rents no more than 8 percent, and applicants like McCaskill are filing multiple BMR applications.
“At Glenbrook Crossing, I was one of the first to apply. It was on the first day,” McCaskill said. “My name was Number 7. Today I’m Number 6. It doesn’t have a lot of units like other buildings – that’s why my number is low. But am I going to get bumped by people who live or work in Glenbrook?”
Coard said the Affordability Plan for Glenbrook Crossing does not include a preference for neighborhood residents. That’s good news for McCaskill, but her confusion about the criteria illustrates the problem.
Charter Oak has contracts with only six of the 42 buildings that offer BMR units. So Charter Oak may provide applicant information only on Allure, NV, Escape, Harbor Landing, Glenbrook Crossing, and Anthem.
“We have an online wait list management system so folks don’t have to call us to see where they are on the waiting list. But, for the other buildings, folks have to call each one individually to find out where they are,” Coard said. “There is a need for a more centralized option for folks. It would be advantageous to have a one-stop shop.”
It would come at a cost, Coard said.
“Every building owner would have to take a piece of their pie and use it to pay for a centralized service,” she said.
The city’s Housing Affordability Plan, released two months ago, determined that administration of the BMR program is scattered, and staffing is inadequate. Applicants don’t know where to apply; it’s difficult to track how many BMR units are available; and it’s hard to see how many applicants are on waiting lists, the document states.
Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Mayor Caroline Simmons, said the city is “working on creating a single and unified wait list and application system so people don’t have to go directly to different owners.”
Affordability Plans can be changed, but only by city, housing and building representatives working together, Meyer said.
Tufo said the Stamford BMR program was ahead of its time, but now must adapt with the times, which will require “policy decisions and resources.”
“The question now is what population is the program serving, and is it serving the segment of the community that is in need of housing assistance?” Tufo said. “You could say it’s serving an important segment of the community – those earning below six figures. But it could be that it’s not serving the population it was originally intended to serve.”
McCaskill and her children now live in a housing development in Waterside, a neighborhood adjacent to the South End.
“There have been three shootings since I’ve been here. One night in 2020, a bullet came close to my bedroom window,” McCaskill said. “I’m looking for a better place to live. I meet the income qualifications for the BMR program, but I’m never selected. This is hard for people who need affordable housing.”