Former Darien First Selectman Evonne Klein endorsed a new bill that would change the way housing can be proposed and built by Connecticut developers, adding more stringent inclusionary affordable housing requirements to those already existing in Darien.
Darien’s requirements were implemented when Klein was first selectman here.
According to a press release from Klein, who is now the head of the state Department of Housing, the bill was introduced at the suggestion of her department.
Provisions of House Bill 7298, an Act Concerning Inclusionary Zoning, would include:
- Reserving a set percentage of units in all newly created multifamily developments, with five or more units, as affordable to person’s making below the Area Median Income (AMI).
- These units will be open to individuals and families making between 30% to 80% of AMI.
Under the bill, developers must meet one of the following criteria: 15% affordable housing for those who do not exceed 30% AMI, 20% affordable housing for those not exceeding 60% AMI, or 30% for those not exceeding 80% AMI.
The bill did not make it out of the House’s Planning & Development Committee. However, it is unclear if the bill is dead for the legislative season. Regardless, the proposal has raised some concerns on the Darien side, and Klein told The Darien Times she wanted to “keep the conversation going forward.
Klein said if the bill were to proceed, already-approved multi-housing projects would be grandfathered in to the previous statutes.
Another question that was raised was whether units built under this statute, using Area Median Income as a basis, would count toward a affordable housing moratorium under state statute 8-30g.
Statute 8-30g allows developers to override some local town zoning laws with projects that include affordable housing if the town does not classify 10% of its housing as “affordable” as per state statute definition.
Moratoriums can be achieved earning points via a system based on the types of affordable housing built.
Both Sen. Bob Duff and Sen. Carlo Leone, Democrats who represent part of Darien, in nearly identical statements to The Darien Times, cited earning a third moratorium as an incentive for Darien to support the state inclusionary zoning bill.
However, it is unclear if the housing under the law would count, as Darien and other towns in Fairfield County’s “Area” Median Income is higher than the State Median Income used to calculate moratorium points.
When Klein was asked if such units could be applied to a moratorium, she said yes, but then added, “this gets really complicated.”
“All in all, Darien’s been really good about building units towards the moratorium. If Darien keeps on essentially, doing what it’s doing, with regards to this statewide proposal, Darien should be in good shape and the points should count,” she said.
Klein said she was not concerned with how such a law might impact local developers in terms of having a project still financially viable when affordable housing are required to be built on site.
“As you have seen in town, developers have included affordable units or have built them offsite. Without any state financial assistance, that’s been able to happen,” she said.
She added that “there would be a pot of funding in place for developers. They could come in with applications having met criteria to get funding on a rolling basis.”
Current inclusionary zoning regs
Darien’s current inclusionary zoning regs require developments that result in the creation of additional multi-family dwelling units must designate 12% as affordable housing as defined by the Connecticut General Statutes. Single family subdivisions or re-subdivisions resulting in five or more building lots must also designate a minimum of 12% as affordable.
Darien allows developers to meet their affordable housing requirement three ways: Building units on site, building units somewhere else in Darien, or paying a fee in lieu to the town’s Affordable Housing Trust fund.
The units must be affordable to those making equal to or less than 80% of the State Median Income.
Klein said that Darien’s inclusionary zoning regs were “adopted when I was first selectman, and it is something I did champion.”
Despite her positive comments on Darien’s regs, her testimony on the new bill specifically targeted two of its options — building units off site, and paying into a fund — as ones to be eliminated.
“While this is well intended because it generates a funding stream to build affordable housing, this does not address the issue of gentrification,” Klein said. “What tends to happen is — instead of creating more affordable units in all newly created housing developments — the affordable units are getting concentrated into one part of a municipality. Under our proposal, we have eliminated the pay-in system, except in the case of smaller housing developments, with less than five units.”
She added that the option to build off-site units had been eliminated as well, “by requiring the units to be included on-site, in the development. Offsite building provisions have the same effect of concentrating lower income units in one part of a community over another.”
David Genovese, a Darien native and one of its most active local developers, has been working for more than a year on large-scale project to redevelop the area of Corbin Drive, including housing units and retail.
Genovese recently had some zoning reg changes approved by P&Z that would allow him to proceed with the project.
Despite Klein’s assurances, he said “the proposed legislation could have a significant and profound economic impact on our project and jeopardize its viability. We are studying the implications now.”
“Aside from the implications for our downtown project, I would add that this type of legislation worries me as it represents a continuation of the efforts by some in Hartford to strip authority from local government. I guess that I would ask the question, do we in this area really want to cede control of our zoning decision-making to legislators in Hartford?” he said.
Genovese expressed concern on what could be coming next.
“Looking back at the last few years, the inclusionary zoning regulations put in place in Darien through the collaborative efforts of the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Darien Affordable Housing Advisory Commission, and the Board of Selectmen, seems to have worked well,” he said.
“Affordable units have been created through our self-drafted inclusionary zoning regulations in many locations in Darien over the last ten years, including the project we built at 745 Boston Post Road,” Genovese said.
“Funds provided by our project under the fee-in-lieu provision are actually being used in connection with the Old Town Hall Homes project, doing exactly what fee-in-lieu provisions are hoped to do — creating more units in another location than would have otherwise been created in the new development which generated the payment of the fee,” he said.
Darien officials respond
State Rep. Terrie Wood, a Republican who represents part of Darien and Rowayton, said Darien’s inclusionary zoning regs have been successful in increasing affordable housing. However, she said the new state bill “is an overstep on local control by state government and will create more government bureaucracy. This is the last thing our state needs.”
“Economic development is not driven by having more affordable housing options. We are not attracting business, in fact in 2016, Connecticut had a net loss of 200 jobs compared to Massachusetts, that had a net gain of 56,000 jobs in 2016,” Wood said, noting the population for Connecticut is 3.5 million and for Massachusetts is 6.7 million.
“With a continued net out-migration of people, housing is not our main issue. Setting strong fiscal policy should be our priority, which includes sustainable and predictable economic climate with lower taxes,” she said.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson agreed with Wood that Darien’s inclusionary zoning regs “work well for our town, but state mandated one-size-fits-all land use regulation isn’t a policy I support.”
“Any affordable housing mandates should be considered on a regional basis, not by individual towns as it would be more consistent with the idea of workforce housing,” Stevenson added.
Stevenson said that building affordable housing “should not be Connecticut’s job program.”
“Leadership should focus on recruiting businesses and highly-skilled talent and let the market drive housing demand,” she said.
Planning & Zoning Commission Chairman John Sini said what “confounds” him is even though Klein was involved in the establishment of Darien’s inclusionary zoning regs, “her current proposal is lacking crucial developer incentives that have helped make our local regulation such a success.”
“Instead of creating more affordable housing throughout the state, I believe if her proposal was adopted it would prove not only to impede Connecticut’s housing expansion and diversity, but also negatively impact its economic growth,” he said.
Sini said the “one-size-fits-all” mandate is flawed.
“For example, the use of Area Median Income in Darien would render the affordable units useless in accumulating affordable housing points, which are based on state median income measures. Inclusionary zoning is best to be managed locally or regionally,” Sini said.
“Local zoning commissions should maintain their authority to choose between onsite, offsite and/or fee in lieu in order to make a determination that is in the best interest of the towns and all of their residents,” he said.
Department of Housing Public Information Officer Dan Arsenault sent The Darien Times a follow up email providing additional information, saying modifications had been made before the bill failed to move forward from the committee, following public hearing feedback.
“Just to name a few, we proposed to significantly lower the amount of units that are required to be set aside as affordable in new housing developments,” he said.
“We also developed a new model that ties the IZ bill to individual municipalities and their current affordable housing stock. This language would have set criteria for each municipality,” Arsenault said.
Klein told The Darien Times it “has been really exciting to be the leader of this department.”
“The planning and development committee recognize it’s a big idea, and they have many questions about it,” she said.
Klein said committee chairmen are committed to helping that conversation stay alive.