STAMFORD – In Connecticut’s fastest-growing city, where apartment towers rise from the ground regularly, tension is mounting.
For the fourth time in a year, the Board of Representatives this week requested appearances by the city’s top zoning and housing officials. Anger, accusation, calls for order and, ultimately, agreement, marked the three-hour meeting.
Members of the board’s housing and development committee asked Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing and Principal Housing Planner Emily Gordon to again explain outcomes of a city program that requires developers to include a percentage of affordable units in large residential projects, or pay into a housing fund instead.
The discussion, at first, was polite.
Blessing explained that 1,200 affordable units have been created since the city’s Below Market Rate zoning program was established in 2001. Most of the affordable units, 660, have been produced since 2016, Blessing said.
Another 500 affordable units will come online within two years, Blessing said.
BMR – designed for households that earn modest salaries and struggle to find housing in pricey Stamford – is the city’s primary program for developing affordable units. It has been so successful that Stamford accounts for 25 percent of all the affordable units built in Connecticut in the last two decades, according to information from Blessing.
The program requires that developers of buildings with 10 apartments or more set aside 10 percent of them as affordable. But, with a special permit from the Zoning Board, developers who don’t want to include affordable units in their projects can pay a fee in lieu of that. Fees are deposited in the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund and used to create units elsewhere.
That made the discussion take a turn.
Send them somewhere else
“For me, this is segregation,” city Rep. Anabel Figueroa said. “It’s easier for a developer to write a check and send people who cannot afford to live in their building somewhere else.”
Blessing said that’s a misconception.
“Most of the affordable units produced are in the same neighborhoods as the market-rate units – downtown and the South End,” Blessing said.
About 80 percent of affordable units are built on site, he said, but the fee-in-lieu option has benefits. A nonprofit agency or the city housing authority can use money from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund to build the larger units people need, rather than leave it to private developers who tend to build studios and one-bedroom apartments, Blessing said.
The developer of a new downtown apartment high-rise paid into the trust fund rather than build affordable units on site, and the money was used to build the Franklin Street project, Blessing said.
“Franklin Street has more units and larger units than would have been provided on site, and they are more deeply affordable,” he said.
Not only that, Blessing said, but the fee-in-lieu money that supplies the housing trust fund helps the city obtain state and federal funding.
“It’s the starting money you have to show to the state and the feds to apply for low-income tax credits and other financing sources,” he said.
A number of city representatives weren’t buying it.
Turn up the heat
“It will take two or three years for a nonprofit to say, ‘We have the money to build deeply affordable units,’” said city Rep. Mavina Moore. “We have to sit around and wait for nonprofits to have enough money. Meanwhile we have all these developers coming in and taking up every last space.”
Blessing said only the Zoning Board has the authority to change the BMR program.
Then someone has to turn up the heat on the Zoning Board, city Rep. Jeff Stella said.
“We could have $100 million in fee-in-lieu money … it doesn’t help that individual who’s living in a park today,” Stella said. “We can’t tell that person, ‘Don’t worry. Two or three years from now we’re going to take care of you because we just got fee-in-lieu.”
“Eighty percent of units are provided on site. So why don’t you understand that fee-in-lieu is not rampant?” he asked.
The developer of The Smyth, a 414-apartment tower that just went up downtown, was allowed to pay the fee instead of building affordable units on site, Stella said.
“We would have had 40 units there,” he said to Blessing.
“But using that money we’ll have 240 units in St. John’s Towers,” an affordable complex, Blessing shot back. “I’m sick and tired of these accusations. We’re here for the fourth time in a year to talk about this issue and you repeat the same accusations and you repeat the same lies and it has to come to an end. This is one of the most successful affordable, inclusionary housing programs in the country and you systematically pooh-pooh it.”
Point of order!
Heat, in fact, can be turned on the Board of Representatives to ease the affordable housing crisis by raising taxes to contribute toward production of more units, Blessing said.
Stella said the Zoning Board should require more of developers by increasing the fee-in-lieu amount and the percentage of affordable units required per project.
Instead, Stella said, “your answer is raise taxes, not change the system.”
Figueroa took exception to something else Blessing said.
“We as elected officials and you as city employees have an obligation – we to the public and you to us to answer our questions, even if you are sick and tired of us,” Figueroa said.
“I do not appreciate you patronizing me,” Blessing replied. “If you are so concerned about affordable housing, as you all said tonight …”
“Point of order!” city Rep. Sean Boeger interrupted. “I’ve listened to enough of this. Regardless of whether director Blessing is an elected official or not, I’m insisting that he abide by Robert’s Rules, and not speak to the motives of the elected members of this committee (or) to … an accusation of lying.”
City Rep. Rob Roqueta, the committee co-chair, called for decorum.
“We should all feel safe in these meetings, and not feel like we are being attacked,” Roqueta said.
Blessing – whose Land Use staff supports the mayoral appointees who make up the Zoning Board – and city representatives then agreed that they should try to work together because development is a contentious topic that stirs emotion.
It’s been so. Differing views of development have split city Democrats, the party that holds the mayor’s office and majorities on multiple boards.
‘We don’t have enough’
Mayor Caroline Simmons and her supporters want developers to continue building more projects to fill the housing need, and favor redevelopment of corporate parks, allowing accessory apartments in single-family homes, and more.
Other Democrats say the city is creating mostly high-priced luxury one-bedrooms and studios when people need larger, more affordable units. They say that, as streets fill with traffic and neighborhoods are squeezed, there is no clear plan of development for the city.
In recent months the Board of Representatives has rejected Simmons’ nominee to fill a seat on the Zoning Board and rejected her proposal to sell the Glenbrook Community Center to a private developer to build housing.
In June, Simmons, a former state representative, enlisted help from friends in Hartford to pass a law that blocks towns from changing their charters on a host of zoning matters. The measure outlawed changes that were being discussed at the time by the Stamford Charter Revision Commission. Because of the law, Stamford voters will not have a chance to consider the proposed charter changes in the Nov. 7 municipal election.
During the Board of Representatives committee meeting, Blessing reiterated the administration’s stance. “The problem we have, and why (rents) are so high, is because we don’t have enough housing and we don’t build enough housing,” Blessing said.
But Stamford has built thousands of housing units since redevelopment of the South End began 15 years ago, and prices are only going up, representatives said.
People who live here
Boeger said there is a split between the administration’s push for more development and what representatives hear from their constituents.
His District 15 constituents from Belltown, Glenbrook and Springdale feel their neighborhoods “are overpacked and getting worse,” Boeger said.
Stamford has two issues, he said – “a tremendous number of people who want to live here but can’t because there’s not enough housing, and the affordability problem.”
He is concerned “about the people who live here, not the people who want to live here,” Boeger said.
“Does the administration have a target in mind of how much housing is enough? Are we trying to increase our population by 100,000 people? By 500,000 people? I don’t know what the end game is here,” Boeger said. “How far do we keep pushing the envelope?”
Gordon said a city housing study showed that more than 40 percent of Stamford households are burdened by the cost of housing because of high demand. She directed representatives to Simmons’ June executive order, which seeks to create or renovate 1,000 additional affordable units by 2025, and develop 2,443 new affordable units by 2033, focusing on low-income, family-sized housing.