Barnes Pitches Benefits of New Housing and Development to Stamford Zoning Board

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STAMFORD – The city’s chief financial and administrative officer appeared before the Zoning Board with a clear-cut mission.

Ben Barnes said he had a presentation, put together in response to a request from the Zoning Board, quantifying “major areas in which real estate development and, in particular, development of multifamily housing, impacts city finances.” 

It’s not surprising that Barnes, Stamford’s director of administration, was asked to explain the link between development and the city’s fiscal condition. The Zoning Board, which rarely rejects projects, has been getting pushback from residents who’ve been reacting to 15 years of intense development. 

Barnes told the board that development, which is producing mostly high-end, high-rent apartments, is good for Stamford.

“I hear many times that apartment dwellers and renters don’t pay taxes, but they do,” Barnes said. “I don’t believe there is any reason to suggest that additional apartment development, or development generally, has put additional burdens on taxpayers who pre-existed or live in existing housing. The data points to the fact that real estate development, and development of multifamily housing, pays its way.”

He put up charts and graphs to explain.

Since 2013, new development has added $2.1 billion to Stamford’s $24.4 billion grand list, which is all taxable property in the city, Barnes said.

The addition of that taxable property created $52.7 million in tax revenue, he said.

During that time, the city collected from developers $102 million in building permit fees, Barnes said.

Since 2018, most of the increase in property tax revenue has come from apartments, he said. Commercial and industrial developments have lagged far behind, Barnes said. 

Under the city’s Below Market Rate program, 1,148 of the units that were built were designated as affordable, he said. The program requires developers of projects with 10 or more units to offer 10 percent of them at lower rents.

Schools not stressed

The effects of development on city services have been minimal, Barnes said. School enrollment rose from 15,951 students in 2013 to 16,134 last year – an increase of only 183 students. 

Enrollment has been dropping statewide, and it may have done so in Stamford “if not for the additional development,” Barnes said. Or it could be that the new builds of mostly luxury apartments are not attracting people with children. Either way, development “is not driving significant growth in school expenditures,” he said.

The per capita tax levy last year was less than it was in 2013, according to Barnes. The levy was about $4,600 per person a decade ago and roughly $4,000 last year, he said.

That likely is because of an influx of federal pandemic relief funding starting in 2020, which offset city taxes, Barnes said. The money runs out this year, so taxes will go up, he said. The number also declined because the city gained population during that decade, so each person paid less. But it is still a good measure of the tax burden over time, Barnes said.

Some Zoning Board members said they were happy to hear what he had to say.

“We have heard concerns from people that the increase in the number of housing units would stress the schools beyond capacity,” board Chair David Stein said. “But it looks like it has barely nudged it.”

Member Rosanne McManus, who once sat on the Board of Education, agreed.

“Most of us knew this but it’s good to see the numbers at hand,” McManus said. When she was on the school board, “we knew when we did the redistricting that the new high-rises didn’t have large numbers of kids in them.” 

Zoning Board member Bill Morris told Barnes “it would be nice if you can get this information out to the general public,” beyond the 60 or so people who were viewing the presentation on Zoom. 

Keep building more

Board member Racquel Smith-Anderson had questions.

“Is growth sustainable?” she asked Barnes.

“I think the absence of growth is unsustainable,” Barnes replied. “If we do not continue to grow with the obvious demand for housing, it will cause housing costs to rise so high that we will force many longstanding community members to leave.”

Young people will not be able to move out of their parents’ homes, couples who have a child will not be able to move from their studio apartments, and households will double up so people can share the cost of rent, he said.

Stamford residents have said that has been happening for years.

Smith-Anderson asked Barnes to return with information about “whether high rents are pushing people out of their communities,” plus the effects of development on traffic and emergency services. Barnes agreed to gather more information.

But the solution, he said, is to build more. 

If growth continues, he said, “we will approach a level where rents will come down or stabilize. It hasn’t happened yet. But it’s based on strong economic theory and hundreds of years of measurement – increasing supply will ultimately lower the price. Continuing to add more housing units is the most productive way to contain housing costs in Stamford and regionally.”

More units, lower rents?

City Rep. Jeff Stella, who represents the West Side, a neighborhood of many working-class families and renters, said he’s not buying it.

“What is the number? Give me a number. Will prices come down after the next 500 new units are built? After the next 1,000 new units are built?” Stella said after the meeting. “They’ve been saying this for years and the housing market has not brought prices down. Nobody builds anything thinking, ‘I will charge less than what is being charged now.’ Rents won’t come down because we’re building more. Rents will come down when something happens in the market – job losses or a recession or some other economic problem.”

City data shows that Stamford built more than 13,000 apartments in the last 13 years. The problem is that they are nearly all high-rent and drawing people from outside Stamford who can afford to pay, said David Adams, a Stamford resident who listened to Barnes’ presentation.

“There’s an endless supply of people who want to move here from New York so they’ll have a shorter commute to work in Manhattan than they have from Queens or Brooklyn,” Adams said.

City administrators who say building more units will bring down rent prices are “conflating two demands,” Adams said.

The demand from outside Stamford is “for high-end units, and the demand in Stamford is for affordable units,” he said. “Their argument that increasing the housing supply for high-income people coming into Stamford will affect the demand for affordable housing within Stamford is completely without logic.”

Sue Halpern, who has lived on the South End for decades and advocates for the neighborhood, said the problem is that “it’s all about luxury housing.”

“People who don’t make a lot of money are getting chased out of town in the South End, on the West Side and East Side, in the Cove. There are more and more evictions because rents are so high,” Halpern said. “So many multi-family homes that provided naturally occurring affordable housing have been knocked down for luxury high-rises.”

‘The real crime here’

It’s gentrification, Halpern said.

“They just keep changing the zoning regulations to help the developers,” she said.

Adams agreed.

“People are moving out. They can’t stay,” he said. “That’s the real crime here.”

Stella said the same.

“People in Stamford can’t compete with people coming in from New York and other places. I mean, how are we helping the people of Stamford?” Stella said. “We’re seeing a breakdown of family, of community, because of these high rents.”

Barnes said the Zoning Board can ease the effects of gentrification “by limiting how new development impacts existing stock.”

Housing demand in Stamford is driven by people “for whom costs are affordable compared to New York or other large cities,” Barnes said. “Supply, on the other hand, has actually been remarkably constrained, even though there has been development.”

The pandemic sent New Yorkers shopping for homes in more spacious places like Stamford, then a steep rise in interest rates kept homeowners in their homes, “depressing the amount of housing stock available for purchase or rent,” Barnes said. Buyers bid against each other on the limited homes for sale, driving up prices.

“This leads me to conclude that we can expect it to take more housing supply – considerably more than now – to begin to impact prices,” Barnes said. “Stamford’s work will be easier or harder depending on the amount of production that New York, Westchester and other Fairfield County towns decide to allow.”


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.

a.carella@ctexaminer.com