Members of the Board of Representatives say they are taking on the huge, complex problem of housing affordability in Stamford.
To that end, representatives invited the Land Use Bureau chief to the Tuesday meeting of the board’s Housing, Community Development and Social Services Committee.
The chief, Ralph Blessing, told the committee that the first obstacle is misinformation.
“There are a lot of things coming up over and over again in the discussion on affordable housing … that are not true when you look at the data,” Blessing said.
The Land Use Bureau, which handles all things zoning and development, “wants to work with you on moving forward with solutions for people in Stamford,” Blessing told the representatives, but the discussion “has to be based on facts and careful deliberation of a complicated situation.”
He and the committee’s other invited guest, Housing and Community Development Director Emily Gordon, presented information about Stamford’s “housing landscape”:
- In the last year, some rents in have gone up 20 percent
- Most households in Stamford now are renters, not owners, and renters are more likely to pay more than they can afford for housing
- Condominiums offer the most affordable opportunity for home ownership, but very few condominiums have been built since the Great Recession of 2008
- About 80 percent of the land in Stamford is zoned for single-family homes
- Creating space for more housing takes a long time – this year’s rezoning of the area around the Stamford train station from industrial to residential was the culmination of an effort that began in 2018
- In the last few years the population of Stamford and the region has grown twice as fast as the number of housing units
Representatives had dozens of questions for Blessing and Gordon, most of them about the city’s Below Market Rate program, which requires that developers of buildings with 10 apartments or more set aside 10 percent as affordable. The program has created more than 1,000 Below Market Rate units to date.
But there is little oversight of BMR apartments, city Rep. Melinda Baxter said.
“There should be a way to oversee what these property managers are doing. I know people who live in BMR apartments and rents are constantly going up,” Baxter said. “We need to find a way to make sure these rents aren’t going sky-high and putting tenants out of their BMR units.”
Landlords cannot increase rents in BMR units at will, Blessing said. BMR rents are linked to the area median income, which is set by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
“If the area median income goes up, the rent goes up,” Blessing said.
This year HUD increased the Stamford area median income a whopping 20 percent.
“The city reached out to landlords of affordable units and asked them to increase rents by no more than 8 percent,” Blessing said. “Quite a number of landlords agreed, but we can only ask them. We have no legal power to make them.”
It’s true that the BMR program needs more oversight, Blessing said. Each apartment building manages its own BMR units, except for a handful that contract with Stamford’s housing authority, Charter Oak Communities, to do it.
Oversight of the individual building BMR programs is Gordon’s responsibility, but she does it alone, while also overseeing other housing and community development programs, Blessing said.
Before Gordon, “there was no oversight,” he said.
“The reports from the BMR buildings would go into file cabinets unread. (Gordon) has been reading them,” Blessing said. “We need to work with you on the Board of Representatives because you, in the end, have a say over whether we get additional staff.”
The system is so scattered that people who qualify for a BMR unit sign up with multiple buildings and end up on multiple waiting lists that they check multiple times.
“When the BMR program started, there was a handful of units and we didn’t need someone to manage it,” Blessing said. “Now we have more than 1,000 units on our hands. People have a right to a transparent, fair selection process. This is something the city is not doing well.”
Representatives had a lot of questions about the “fee in lieu” aspect of the BMR program. It allows developers to deposit money in a fund in lieu of building BMR units into their projects.
“When developers are allowed to use fee in lieu, that says to me, ‘I don’t want those people in my building,’” said city Rep. Mavina Moore, housing committee co-chair. “We make it so easy for developers who have a lot of money to say, ‘I’m going to pay out to make sure these people are not in my building.’”
But the data shows that 80 percent of BMR units are built on site, Blessing said.
“It’s a myth that developers mostly buy out,” he said.
Fees paid in lieu of building on-site BMR units are used to create deeply affordable units, such as a project on Franklin Street; to fund a home-ownership program for low-income residents; and to address homelessness, Blessing said. The city recently changed the fee-in-lieu formula, increasing developers’ payments by 25 percent, he said.
Because of the severe housing shortage, Stamford should double the 10 percent requirement for the number of BMR units in a development, city Rep. Jeff Stella said.
“In New York and other cities, it’s up to 20 percent or more … we’re behind,” Stella said. “I keep hearing we have a housing crisis. We need to get ahead of this.”
Percentages alone don’t tell the story, Blessing said.
“Stamford says that wherever you build something bigger than 10 units, you have to set aside 10 percent. New York does 20 percent but only in small areas. Stamford’s BMR program is ‘way more successful than New York’s program,” Blessing said.
Still, the Stamford Zoning Board is looking at increasing the BMR unit requirement, he said.
He noted that the BMR program “is a very small piece of the big puzzle that is affordable housing.” The Stamford housing authority, for example, offers about 1,500 units of public housing, and the city has another 3,000 units of government-assisted housing, Blessing said.
Representatives asked whether Stamford residents are being forced out because rents at the new developments, particularly in the South End, are so expensive.
Census data shows the city has had “an influx of more affluent older people,” Blessing said.
“We are losing younger people and low-income families,” he said.
Census data shows that the percentage of nonwhite people living in the South End has decreased, but because of the overall increase in the neighborhood population, “the absolute number of nonwhite people living in the South End is higher than before,” Blessing said. “Nonwhite people moved there.”
City Rep. Rob Roqueta, housing committee co-chair, said the city must ensure that landlords aren’t mismanaging BMR waiting lists, leasing agreements and other practices.
“I support a lot more funding for (Gordon’s) department, and I implore the administration to put our money where our mouth is. Let’s start funding Stamford’s affordable housing program when budget season begins in the new year,” Roqueta said. “Planting those seeds now will help us achieve the goals we hope to achieve.”