A recent analysis of municipal plans to meet Connecticut’s staggering need for 85,000 affordable housing units ranked Stamford first among 17 Fairfield County towns.
Other towns have resisted plans to change zoning regulations and expand housing opportunities, according to the analysis. But Stamford has programs offering below-market-rate rentals and Section 8 vouchers, an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, and requirements that builders include affordable units in new developments.
The result is that Stamford creates more affordable housing units, by far, than any other town in Fairfield County.
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But, until Wednesday night, Stamford didn’t allow ADUs.
That’s the state’s acronym for accessory dwelling units – apartments on the lots of single-family homes. ADUs can be built in a basement, attic, or atop a garage; attached to a house or detached in the yard.
Except for Bridgeport, every town in the area has allowed ADUs, with varying restrictions. But Stamford – perhaps because it has little buildable space left, or because it has a huge problem with illegal apartments, or both – never did.
Then on Wednesday four members of the Zoning Board voted unanimously to enact ADU regulations:
- Only single-family homes on lots larger than 10,000 square feet may add an ADU
- The ADU may be no larger than 800 square feet
- The single-family home and the ADU must meet all zoning standards
- The homeowner must live in either the house or the ADU
- Occupancy of the ADU is limited to three persons
- The homeowner must provide at least one off-street parking space for the ADU tenant
- ADUs cannot be used for short-term rentals, such as AirBnB
Most of the four-hour meeting was taken up by residents weighing in during a public hearing on ADUs, and Zoning Board members fine-tuning their draft regulations. ADUs became controversial when the state Legislature last year voted to allow them to be added to every single-family lot in Connecticut, with few restrictions.
The law, designed to increase the number of housing units in the state, came with an opt-out: each town may reject the state mandate if they vote to do so by Jan. 1. So far, in the area, Greenwich, Darien, Norwalk, Danbury, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Stratford, Westport, Weston, Wilton, Monroe, Redding and Milford have opted out.
Stamford is running up against the deadline because Zoning Board members said they wanted to come up with their own ADU regulations before voting on whether to opt out.
Under state rules, Zoning Board members now must hold a public hearing and vote. If they decide to opt out, the Board of Representatives must approve their decision with a ⅔ majority.
The eleventh-hour aspect was not lost on residents who called into the Zoning Board’s virtual meeting Wednesday night. They said they are concerned that Stamford will miss the Jan. 1 deadline and the state mandate will kick in with one-size-fits-all zoning.
“The state has no business controlling local zoning,” said John Delelle of Sun Dance Road. “Let’s opt out now and then come up with a nice plan.”
Maureen Boylan of Seaview Avenue said she doesn’t “understand why every town around us has opted out and Stamford has not.”
There has been little “community discussion about this,” Boylan said. “Just opt out already and then figure out the regulations.”
George Dallas of Dundee Road told Zoning Board members they “made a good effort” on drafting regulations.
“But you’re going about it backwards,” Dallas said. “Opt out first then work on them.”
Dallas said the draft regulations don’t address the spectrum of problems ADUs could create, such as building them on homes hooked up to septic systems.
Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing said anyone wishing to build an ADU would have to complete a building permit application that will be reviewed by the Health Department and the Environmental Protection Board.
“We have a stipulation that you cannot have an ADU if the septic capacity is not sufficient,” Blessing said.
Several residents raised Stamford’s poor record of enforcing zoning regulations. In too many neighborhoods, they said, single-family homes are illegally subdivided into multi-family homes; apartments are added without building permits or fire- and health-code compliance; commercial trucks are illegally parked on residential streets; homes are carved up into AirBnB rentals; and other violations that go undetected.
“I don’t know how on earth Stamford will enforce this,” said Sandy Menendez of Upland Road. “I think it would open Stamford up to out-of-town investors buying houses and turning them into commercial entities. There’s a house in my neighborhood that started out with an illegal ADU and ended up selling as a multi-family home. Now there are seven to 10 cars in the driveway and several vehicles in the street, including commercial vehicles. The owner lives in New Canaan. Neighbors tell the city about the situation and the city says there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Michael Yacenda of Hunting Ridge Road said ADUs will create consequences Zoning Board members haven’t considered. Members have to “talk to more people,” Yacenda said.
“I have a common driveway with four houses. I would not want four more rental units trying to share it,” Yacenda said. “That driveway would be a real nightmare.”
Some callers said the Zoning Board’s requirement for an off-street parking space is inadequate.
“If the regulations allow three adults in an ADU and all three have cars, and there’s one parking space, then two of the cars will park on the street,” said Morgan Harris of Alton Road. “On my street parking is allowed on only one side. Where are the extra cars going to go? Are you going to limit street parking?”
Scott Hollas of Fairmont Avenue said he’s concerned that ADUs will lead to more “homeowners parking on their front lawn, as they do now in my neighborhood.”
But Dice Oh, who lives on Tresser Boulevard, said it’s “not sensible to require an additional parking spot,” and that requirement should be removed.
The Zoning Board also should remove the cap on the number of people who can live in an ADU, Oh said.
“It’s discriminatory against families,” he said.
The housing shortage is severe and results in high rents and low vacancy rates, Oh said.
“ADUs are the smallest change people can make to expand the housing supply,” he said. “There are cities that have done this and the changes are incremental.”
Indeed, Norwalk has allowed ADUs since 1982, Blessing said, and only 256 have been built since then – an average of about six a year.
Will Wright of Pepper Ridge Road called in to say he also favors use of ADUs to alleviate the housing shortage.
“I am against making it harder to add to our housing stock. Everything you can do helps,” Wright said. “And it’s good to have options as a property owner.”
Jordan Force, who lives in an apartment on Washington Boulevard, agreed there should be few restrictions. He supports ADUs so strongly that he thinks people should not just have to rent them.
“You should be able to sell ADUs, like a condo,” Force said.
Hollas and Harris said the requirement that the homeowner live on the property is crucial.
“Properties often are degraded by lack of care when the owner isn’t there,” Hollas said.
“The owners will be in the community, so if there are problems, they can be brought to them,” Harris said.
Sue Swidler of Blackberry Drive agreed.
“If the owner is not there, why does he need an ADU?” Swidler asked. “Why isn’t he renting his home?”
And so the comments went, ranging between support and opposition. A recent retiree said an ADU will bring in income, allow him to age in place, or allow space for a live-in caregiver. A woman said there are streets in Stamford so congested with parked cars that “you can’t get a fire truck down them,” and ADUs will make it worse.
After debating, Zoning Board members made one change to their draft regulations – the minimum lot size allowed for ADUs was reduced from 11,000 square feet to 10,000.
The board agreed to take a year to watch how the regulations work, and then revisit them.
A date for the Zoning Board’s public hearing on whether to opt out of the state mandate should be set within the next few days, Blessing said. The board likely will vote on the opt-out at the same meeting, “unless there are so many public comments that the meeting would have to be continued,” Blessing said.