Westport Eyes Cottage Community Model to Close the Affordable Housing Gap

Westport's Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Danielle Dobin showed photos of Greenwood Avenue Cottages in Shoreline, Washington, exemplifying potential cottage clusters in Westport, during a meeting on May 31, 2023. (Credit: Ross Chapin Architects)


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WESTPORT – Zoning officials have proposed building cottage communities as a means to ward off private developers and boost the available affordable housing in town.

At a Wednesday meeting of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s Affordable Housing Subcommittee, commission Chair Danielle Dobin said groups of state-designated affordable cottages could “really make a difference” for Westport in terms of 8-30g compliance  – a state statute that allows affordable housing developers to bypass local zoning laws if less than 10 percent of a municipality’s housing stock qualifies under state rules for affordability.

Though Westport earned a four-year moratorium on 8-30g in 2019, the suspension expired in March, and officials are looking to cottage clusters in hopes of securing another.

To apply for another moratorium, Dobin said, Westport needs 156 housing-unit-equivalent points. According to the Office of Legislative Research, the points a municipality earns from an affordable housing unit depend on the property type and income restrictions.

Dobin told attendees that while the cottage cluster regulations have not yet been drafted, the communities would be “entirely affordable” and developed on town-owned property. The cottage community model typically clusters a number of small houses around a common interior courtyard.

Dobin told CT Examiner the cottages’ monthly rents would be set by the state after determining income-level restrictions. While rent is currently unknown, she pointed to the cost benefit compared to other market-rate cottage clusters in town.

“We have a cottage cluster that was built in Westport. It was called Daybreak Commons. But they each sold – and this was pre-pandemic – for $1.5 million,” she said. “Now they’d probably be $1.8 [million] or $1.9 [million]. So it’s questionable, in my mind, just what are we getting with cottage clusters being permitted at the market rate?”

At the subcommittee meeting, Dobin also highlighted a benefit to cottage clusters over typical 8-30g-compliant complexes in which 30 percent of the apartments are designated affordable. 

“If you guys can imagine a cottage cluster of 14 houses … all 14 are entirely affordable,” she said. “That is the same equivalent with regard to affordability as we would usually achieve through a 70-unit project.”

The cottages would allow Westport to earn the same amount of points to put toward a moratorium application without the additional market-rate units included in an apartment complex, she said, reducing project density in the suburban town.

Dobin suggested the Planning and Zoning Commission could draft a text amendment to allow for cottage cluster development, and the Board of Selectmen would eventually decide whether to approve individual projects.

Meeting attendees said they appreciated the idea as it earns points toward a moratorium while controlling density, but others questioned whether the town should prioritize opportunities for homeownership over rental properties.

Claudia Coplen, a member of the Commission for Senior Services, argued that tenants will eventually make too much money to continue renting the cottages.

“Is there any way that we look to also create affordable housing that people can buy and own?” she asked.

Dobin said she wanted to provide additional opportunities for people to buy into the community, but explained the 8-30g statute provides “very few” points for resident-owned affordable housing.

She said she prefers to focus on residents over points, but that she’s also responsible for Westport’s 8-30g compliance.

“It’s very hard for me to ever feel I can suggest options for housing that don’t accrue points in the same way, because I know we’re putting the town at a disadvantage in terms of how our numbers look,” she said.

The points system also discourages development of senior housing, as each unit earns only half a point. Still, Dobin said seniors are welcome to live in the cottages so long as they meet income requirements.

“There’s definitely a crisis statewide with regard to affordable housing for seniors, and I do believe that part of what drives it is that towns like Westport are incentivized against deed-restricting new affordable housing for seniors, because we’re penalized for doing that,” she said. “But again, just because the housing wouldn’t be deed restricted for seniors specifically, doesn’t mean that it won’t be ADA compliant or that seniors couldn’t live there.”

Inspired by photos of cottage clusters in the city of Shoreline, Wash., Dobin said she thought they could be a “good aesthetic fit” for Westport. She told CT Examiner that, to her knowledge, Westport would be the first community in Connecticut to implement the idea.

“I think it could be a terrific model for other communities,” she said.

Dobin told meeting attendees she also hoped to secure American Rescue Plan Act funds available at the state-level to cut costs for the town.

“There is a tremendous amount of federal money in the form of ARPA funds that is controlled right now by the Department of Housing,” Dobin said. “So there is an opportunity, if we’re able to capitalize on this moment in time, to call upon some of that money to actually fund this and have it not be an expense for the town at all.”