As Stamford Development Cuts Affordable Units, Planning Votes for Compromise

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STAMFORD – It was a housing wish come true, Theresa Dell said.

So much so that, at first, she couldn’t believe her ears, said the longtime chair of the Planning Board. 

A property owner had proposed building 456 apartments on Clinton Avenue beside Mill River Park in the heart of downtown.

It would not only help fill the city’s gaping need for housing, Dell said, it would do so in a spot where residents would not have to drive, since bus stops, the train, shops, restaurants and all kinds of jobs and services are within walking distance. For those with cars, the entrance to Interstate-95 is two minutes away. And for those who love the outdoors, the park offers riverside walks, trees, wildlife and wildflowers – a valley of quiet amid the urban hustle.

But the dreamiest part of the proposal, Dell said, was the owner’s plan for fulfilling a city requirement that 10 percent of the apartments be offered at reduced rents for low- and moderate-income residents. It meant desirable housing for those folks, too, Dell said.

“When I thought we would have 46 below market rate units in this building, I was ecstatic,” she told board members during their meeting this week. “It was what we all anticipated when we started to think about affordable housing downtown.”

But that was 2016, and that owner is gone.

The new owner, developer Carmel Partners of New York City, has a different proposal. Instead of 456 apartments, Carmel Partners wants to build 471. 

And none of them will be below market rate units. 

Instead, Carmel Partners wants to contribute the value of the units to the Stamford Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The city sets a formula for determining the value and allows developers to put that money in the fund, a source of grants for agencies that build affordable housing.

Carmel Partners went before the Planning Board this week seeking a special permit to contribute nearly $13 million to the fund in lieu of building 47 reduced-rent apartments on Clinton Avenue.

Dell, who has said she is stepping down in February after 22 years on the Planning Board, pushed back. 

“For so long we have been saying how we like to see the [below market rate units] in the buildings being developed,” Dell said. 

When money instead is contributed to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, “we don’t know how long it will take to build anything,” Dell said. But “we could have people living in affordable units in this building” on Clinton Avenue within two years, she said. 

“This is still a fantastic project, but we’re losing an opportunity if we take all the below market rate units away from this building,” Dell said.

The goal of the below market rate program is to create socio-economically diverse neighborhoods, so the city has “a strong preference” for the units to be built on site, according to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund website. 

But there’s a downside, according to the website. Below market rate units end up mostly in neighborhoods where there is a lot of development; they often are not deeply affordable; and they are largely studios, one-bedrooms and some two-bedrooms, which is what private developers build, according to the website.  

And, it says, when developers pay the fee in lieu of building affordable units on site, nonprofits use the money to create housing in other parts of the city; build larger apartments to accommodate families; and usually offer them at lower rents.

Still, most of the affordable units the city requires of developers are built on site, said Lindsey Cohen, an associate planner in the Land Use Bureau.

Cohen told the board that, among developments that went up in the last eight years, 71 percent of the reduced-rent units are on site.

Fee in lieu money that instead went into the housing trust fund was put toward creation of 61 affordable units at Oak Park on the East Side, and 25 units for ownership at 95 Elmcroft Road in the South End, Cohen said. 

“Fee-in-lieu dollars go farther,” Cohen said. “They help the city get more bang for its buck.”

Dell said she would like to see a compromise. Perhaps the developer can build a portion of the required 47 affordable units on site and contribute the balance of the $13 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, she said.

Jason Klein, an attorney with Carmody Torrance Sandak & Hennessey who represents Carmel Partners, said that may not work.

“When we go out to get this project financed, I don’t know that … that is possible,” Klein said. “When you look at the markets right now, uncertain would be putting it nicely …. volatile might be more accurate … so … putting some money in a trust fund and doing some (below market rate units) on site, I just don’t know that that’s feasible. And I would hate for that to jeopardize building the project and getting money in the trust fund.”

Still, Dell said, housing affordability is a huge issue, “so I can’t imagine any lender would be negative on it.”                                                                                           

Anyway, she said, the Planning Board can’t require that the Zoning Board request some affordable units on site and some money for the housing trust fund.

“We can only make a recommendation,” Dell said. “It’s up to the Zoning Board to decide.”

Planning Board members then voted unanimously to recommend that the Zoning Board require that a percentage of the reduced-rent units be built on Clinton Avenue and the remaining money go into the housing trust fund.

The Zoning Board is set to take up the discussion on Jan. 22. Visit here for details.

Carmel Partners plans to build the 471 apartments in two structures on either side of Clinton Avenue, between Division Street and Richmond Hill Avenue. It’s a 4.4-acre parcel along Mill River.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.