Single-family homes in Danbury are being rented at a rate surprising to local officials. What does it mean?

Photo of Rob Ryser

DANBURY - Data showing a high percentage of people renting single-family homes in the city’s heavily residential neighborhoods south and west of downtown surprised leaders on a task force who are planning Danbury’s next 10 years.

“When people aren’t cutting their own grass in their single-family homes and are renting them out to others, they don’t care about them as much,” said Timothy Nolan, the city’s superintendent of public services and a member of a task force overseeing an overhaul of Danbury’s master plan, at a recent meeting. “I would love to know how to reverse that trend and get people living in their own backyards again.”

Nolan was reacting to household-level Census data compiled by a consultant that provides the most up-to-date picture of Danbury’s 85,000 people - from their incomes and their education to their ages and ethnicity - categorized by the neighborhoods they live in.

Francisco Gomes, a manager at FHI Studio, who Danbury has hired help the city revamp its 20-year-old master plan, said the rental data raised questions.

“It is pretty obvious why your highest concentration of renter-occupied units is in your downtown core area, but your more rural areas in the south and west still have a fairly high share of rental housing units - in the 20-to-30 percent range - which surprised me that it was that high,” Gomes said during a task force presentation last week. “Is that a big market in Danbury - the rental of single-family homes?”

Sharon Calitro, Danbury’s planning director said the question needed more data from the block level to determine why single-family neighborhoods would have such high renter percentages.

“I’m a little stumped on this one,” Calitro said during Tuesday’s task force meeting. “In the Long Ridge Road area, I wouldn’t have thought there would be a lot of renter-occupied single-family homes.”

Other Census data that raised eyebrows among task force members was that the rate of housing turnover in the south end was similar to subdivisions on the west side, and that the neighborhood with the highest percentage of children under 18 is immediately west of downtown, in the Morris Street Elementary School area.

The data follows news from last month’s task force meeting that Danbury’s population is poised to grow six times the rate of Fairfield County over the next 20 years, and energize the city with “a wave of younger adults.”

At stake is what kind of city Danbury will become.

“Do we want to be a metropolis with a concentration of a lot of multi-families and really attract a lot of people to town, or do we want to be more of a bedroom community, a little more laid back - a little slower lifestyle?” Asked Joel Urice, vice chairman of the city’s Planning Commission and a task force member, at Tuesday’s meeting. “The maps indicate we are more of a bedroom community, and if you change that focus toward more and more multi-family, you change the whole nature of the town.”

Calitro said the city could grow and keep its identity.

“If the growth is centered around the I-84 corridor, you can still have the bedroom community part,” Calitro said. “They’re not mutually exclusive.”

Danbury data

Other neighborhood data about population density, median household income, educational attainment, and ethnicity did not surprise task force leaders, but confirmed for them the changes Danbury has undergone over the last decade, becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in the state and one of the most diverse cities in the country.

Namely, the data shows Danbury’s downtown neighborhood has the highest population density, the lowest family income, the highest poverty rate, the lowest educational attainment and the highest percentage of Hispanic, Latino and foreign-born residents.

“The data very obviously points to areas of need within your community,” Gomes said. “The central part of the city is likely going to have more needs with respect to investments or programs than other areas of the city.”

The task force is still in the information-gathering phase and is yet to reach out to the public for comments and input - a step the task force plans to take in late summer, after which it will begin to fashion the data into recommendations for the future.

Before public outreach happens, task force members want to see more detailed neighborhood data, such as a clearer picture of where people are renting single-family homes in the city’s south end.

“I would sure like to drill down on those numbers, because they don’t make sense to me,” said Paul Rotello, the City Council’s Democratic Minority Leader and a member of the master plan task force. “It’s anomalous to us…and some of us actually live here and know what’s going on.”

Rotello also raised his eyes at data showing housing turnover rates in the well-established south end of town being similar to the newer condominium neighborhoods on the west end.

“That just does not mesh with my experience at all - some of those (south end) people have been there for 150 years,” Rotello said. “Whenever I’m in The Reserve, people say ‘Where can I get a coffee in his town? Because I got here five minutes ago.’”

rryser@newstimes.com 203-731-3342