STAMFORD — Building & Land Technology has developed more than 40 percent of the roughly 10,000 housing units created in Stamford in the last dozen years, making it Connecticut’s fastest-growing and second-biggest city.
Most of the units have gone up in the once-industrial South End along Stamford Harbor, in a development called Harbor Point. BLT has been constructing luxury apartment high-rises on 80 acres of what was mostly contaminated brownfields.
Many cities might envy such progress.
But members of the Stamford Board of Representatives this week had nothing complimentary to say about the city’s complex, 15-year relationship with the powerful developer.
At their April meeting, representatives debated whether to approve a $950,000 grant that the state Department of Economic and Community Development wants the city to pass on to BLT.
The grants are designated for private developers who clean up contaminated soil and water to repurpose brownfields. BLT is converting the historic Blickensderfer typewriter factory on lower Atlantic Street into a proposed 1,000-unit apartment complex with retail space.
City Rep. Lindsey Miller said he voted against giving public money to a private developer during a March 27 meeting of the board’s Fiscal Committee. But he’d changed his mind by the time the full board met this week.
Miller said it’s because he’d learned that, under its agreement with the state, BLT will provide 12 percent of the on-site units at below market rate rents. If the Zoning Board approves 1,000 units, 120 would be affordable. That exceeds the city requirement that 10 percent of projects with 10 or more apartments be designated affordable.
“I’m in favor of spending $950,000 of state money in order to get us more below market rate housing,” Miller said.
A list of ‘transgressions’
City Rep. Nina Sherwood said the city doesn’t need the state agreement to require BLT to build 120 affordable units. The Stamford Zoning Board can require it as a condition of approval for the project, she said.
Beyond that, Sherwood said, the city has allowed BLT – Stamford’s largest developer, landowner and taxpayer – to get away with far too much.
“The idea that this board has to approve $950,000 to BLT so they don’t renege on their stated intent to put affordable units on site is really testament to the fact that we don’t trust this entity,” Sherwood said. “This entity has been a bad actor; we have reason not to trust them.”
She listed what she called “just a few of the transgressions against the city”:
- The city paid $1 million to a Pulaski Street homeowner because his land was needed to widen a road, but when a portion that abuts a BLT property was not used for the city project, BLT took it over, Sherwood said.
- BLT agreed to build part of the downtown Mill River Greenway but the developer “has been less than easy to deal with and dragging their feet,” Sherwood said.
- When a 20- by 15-foot, 45,000-pound section of outdoor terrace collapsed at Allure, one of BLT’s high-rises, the company “didn’t even call our first responders,” choosing to handle the danger on their own, Sherwood said.
- The Lofts, BLT’s signature Harbor Point building, is empty of tenants and collapsing. “The new owner is suing the city,” Sherwood said. “Taxpayers might be on the hook for god only knows how much money because of the way the building was constructed.”
- In 2011 BLT demolished Stamford’s last boatyard in violation of a zoning agreement with the city.
- BLT was awarded $25 million in taxpayer money to remediate the 14-acre boatyard site and required to provide status reports to the Stamford Harbor Management Commission. But “to this day the city doesn’t have a single one of those reports,” Sherwood said.
If that’s not enough, she said, “I have a fundamental issue with giving this entity $950,000 of taxpayer money” because of all the profit BLT will make on the Blickensderfer project, as it has on other projects, Sherwood said.
$950,000 in 11.4 days
On a conservative assumption that BLT will get about $1,500 in rent for below market rate units and at least $4,000 for top-of-the-line units, Sherwood said, use $2,500 for a typical rent amount. If the Blickensderfer project has 1,000 units, BLT will earn $2.5 million a month on that property, she said.
“Every day, they will make $83,333 in rent, which means BLT is going to make $950,000 every 11.4 days,” Sherwood said. “You’re telling me BLT needs this money, that somebody who is a minimum-wage employee in Connecticut should subsidize BLT $950,000 in this endeavor when BLT will make $950,000 in 11 days? I’m sorry … I don’t agree with it.”
It shouldn’t matter, city Rep. Ashley Ley said.
“We as a city are getting, potentially, 120 below market rate units required to be on property near the train station. These affordable units will reduce dependency on cars, which is important for people in BMR housing,” Ley said. “As much as we have issues with BLT, this is not the place to be fighting with them.”
City Rep. Cara Gilbride took an even more practical view.
“The site now brings $126,000 in taxes. If we convert it to these units, the tax inflow will be $7.5 million,” Gilbride said.
City Rep. Don Mays said he shares “the concern that BLT has not had a tremendous history in this city,” but “we have to look at the future.”
“My own kids can’t afford to live in this city because it’s too expensive. We need to do something about that,” Mays said.
City Rep. Jim Grunberger said he gets that BLT has “not acted in good faith,” and refusing to approve the state grant “is a way to kick them in the knees.”
However, Grunberger said, “this site is full of pollution, and it’s been sitting vacant for 20 years. We don’t want the state thinking we turn away grants … another developer will get it somewhere else.”
As it is, city Rep. Carl Weinberg said, “people in state government … lump Stamford in with the far wealthier, far less diverse communities in Fairfield County, and if we turn down this grant we are giving them an opportunity to believe Stamford doesn’t really need the state’s support.”
The guise of a grant
It’s not wise to pursue grants at all costs, city Rep. Bonnie Kim Campbell said.
“When you have development companies that continue to make mistakes then supposedly beg your pardon, that has to run out sometime,” Campbell said. “You have to be careful about the individuals you get involved with, who are supposed to be helping you with your mission.”
BLT is creating mostly studios and one- and two-bedroom units, without regard to what people need, Campbell said.
“There are no rooms for those who are homeless, and few three-bedroom apartments for people living in two-bedroom apartments to move into when their family grows, and so may find themselves homeless,” Campbell said. “I’m not prepared to support giving BLT this grant but I am prepared to support giving BLT UHaul boxes to get out of town.”
BLT Co-President Ted Ferrarone has said that, besides creating housing, BLT has repaired aged infrastructure, remediated brownfields, improved access to the water, and created a safer neighborhood since it began building in the South End in 2008.
But city Rep. Megan Cottrell said there’s a problem with the Tax Increment Financing district formed to pay for infrastructure improvements needed in the Harbor Point development.
Under the TIF, the district sells bonds to pay for improvements, and a percentage of the property taxes generated by development around the improvements goes to the district to pay back the bonds.
“About half of the taxes BLT pays don’t go directly to the city; they go to the infrastructure improvement district,” Cottrell said. “It’s a quasi-government entity. We have one person from the city who sits on the board but basically it’s BLT that controls the district and they decide what they want to fund.”
It’s not the best set-up, Cottrell said. It “helps BLT more than the people who live there,” she said.
“I believe this is an example of socialized investments and privatized profits,” Cottrell said. “I think BLT is essentially a welfare queen.”
Affordable … or not
City Rep. Rob Roqueta said the term “affordable housing” makes his stomach hurt.
“It sounds like something greater than it really is,” Roqueta said.
In the last dozen years, Stamford has allowed development of 10,000 units “with luxury price tags” that generated only 900 below market rate units. It will happen again with the Blickensderfer project, Roqueta said.
“We’ll get 120 below market rate units, and the other 880 units will go for $3,500 or more, pushing the market pressure upward,” he said. “So every other rental that’s not in Harbor Point or some trendy area that has cappuccino bars and pools on the roof, every mom and pop rental, raises rents because the demand for market rate units has skyrocketed – some rents went up 45 percent in one year.”
Many people in Stamford cannot afford that, Roqueta said. Now the city is attracting people with money, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has more people working from home.
“They’re coming here with multi-six-figure incomes. I’m not begrudging capitalism or people with upward mobility, but it increases our area median income,” Roqueta said.
Open path to affluence
The federal government uses area median income to determine eligibility for affordable housing. So income limits to qualify for a below market rate unit are inflated, Rocqueta said.
“This is, overall, gentrification,” he said. “We are allowing an easy pathway for more affluence without any regard for those who are disabled, indigent, people who have to struggle, people born and raised in Stamford.”
City Rep. Jeff Stella said that what the city calls affordable is not affordable to most people.
“We say, instead of charging you $3,000 a month, we’ll charge you $2,500 and we’ll say it’s below market rate,” Stella said. “By every definition they’re correct. But it’s still not affordable. When I see people paying more for a two-bedroom apartment than I pay for a mortgage, there’s a problem. Families from Stamford are forced out, their kids are forced out, their grandparents are forced out. That’s the biggest sin here.”
The law of supply and demand does not apply in Stamford, he said. Thousands of housing units have been created to fill demand but rents have only risen, he said.
If officials really want to solve the problem of affordable housing, they should give tax breaks to renters, not grants to developers, city Rep. Bradley Bewkes said.
“How about giving them their taxes back so they can go and choose an apartment and won’t have to rely on low-income housing?” Bewkes said. “This is how the state should be thinking about things. This property is near a train station 35 miles outside New York City. Trust me – a developer will make a lot of money from this project whether we give them ($950,000) or not. So let’s think of our own people who don’t have a lot of money.”
City Rep. Eric Morson said he would vote to approve the grant for BLT “as much as I detest things BLT has done” because people at all income levels need help affording housing.
“This will help someone,” he said. “We can’t turn down units because they are not the most deeply affordable.”
City representatives said Ferrarone was calling them before the vote, asking that they approve the grant. But 19 representatives voted to reject it, 16 supported it, and three abstained.
So BLT won’t get the $950,000.
Company spokesman Nicholas Kyriacou said Wednesday BLT had no comment.