Darien made progress on affordable housing in 2022, but is it enough?

'Exclusive' Darien made progress on affordable housing in 2022, but is it enough?

DARIEN — In one of the country's wealthiest towns, efforts to fulfill Darien's state-required affordable housing target all too often result in debates, meetings and protests. Despite progress in 2022, experts say more needs to be done.

“Housing (is the) number one issue in the state — No. 1 — and given the conditions we have today, the perfect storm,” said Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness CEO Evonne Klein. People have come to her worried that they may not be able to stay in Darien with so few affordable downsizing options, she said.

“Something in 2023 needs to change so that housing — a basic need — isn't so hard to attain for so many people,” said the former Darien first selectman and the state’s first Commissioner of Housing.

Adding to the housing stock would also add value to Darien, Klein said, making the community a richer, more diverse place.

“When you think about the history of Darien and how it was really built to be an exclusive community, I think that is just antiquated thinking,” she said. “It’s a different world, and we just can't be thinking like that anymore.”

Will Darien meet the state mandate?

The state requires that 10 percent of a municipality's housing stock be deemed "affordable" — where the resident spends no more than 30 per cent of their income to pay the rent or mortgage.

As of 2021, the most recent state housing data available, Darien had 281 assisted housing units, just under 4 percent of its housing stock. Renting is also an expensive option for people looking to move into town: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average gross rent in Darien was $3,066 between 2017 and 2021, more than double the state average of $1,260. In a recent affordable housing lottery for eight of the newly built Darien Commons units, rents were set at $1,522 for a one-bedroom and $1,817 for a two-bedroom unit — still above the state average.

Darien Planning and Zoning Director Jeremy Ginsberg said developments coming down the pipeline are part of the town’s plan to continue “chipping away” toward meeting the state’s affordable housing mandate.

Several multifamily housing developments in Darien are expected to hit milestones shortly, including completion of Darien Commons’ second phase, the beginning of Corbin District’s second phase and — now that a lawsuit has been settled — the start of converting 3 Parklands from mostly vacant office space to residences.

Officials also are expecting an update on the delayed Noroton Heights Shopping Center, a mixed-use development that was approved by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission in 2022 after a redesign.  

All of those developments include deed-restricted affordable housing within the larger buildings, including 16 of 122 units in Darien Commons, two of 116 units in the Corbin District, six of 57 units in Parklands and 10 of 65 units in the Noroton Heights Shopping Center.

Town officials say they have several strategies to reach the state requirements without losing their local control over what is built where. Under the state’s 8-30g law, communities with less than 10 percent affordable housing stock would not be able to deny the development of low-cost housing unless there is a serious threat to health or safety.

In September, Darien submitted its affordable housing plan after months of discussion, outlining its affordable housing goals for the next five years.

“For mid-sized communities, if you will, I think we've done a lot,” Ginsberg said of the plan. “It would be nonsensical to compare us to Hartford, Stamford and Norwalk, but for the mid-size communities, I think we fare quite well and, in a number of aspects, proven to be leaders relative to issues such as inclusionary zoning.”

Inclusionary zoning — making a proportion of housing units in a building affordable — is one of Darien’s key strategies to creating new affordable housing in town, officials said.

In September, the Fairfield County Center for Housing Opportunity rated the plans that were submitted based on how well each plan met the state’s guidebook on affordable housing.

Overall, Fairfield County communities scored an average of 2.5 out of five, the highest going to Stamford with four stars and lowest going to Sherman and New Fairfield with one star. Darien’s plan submission coincided with the report’s release so it was not included.

Adding new affordable housing units does have its advantages: Build enough units, score enough points, and the state’s 8-30g statute no longer applies to that community. The community can then limit any increase by imposing a moratorium — a pause — in fielding new larger housing requests.

Darien succeeded in gaining two moratoriums in 2010 and in 2016, handed out by the state as reward for the number of affordable housing units built. A third moratorium is potentially on the horizon, a result of Darien’s progress but not its primary goal Ginsburg said.

“Certainly, the first two moratorium had a number of large projects. It’s expected,” Ginsberg said. “Our goal is to keep reviewing, approving projects and watching the fruits of our efforts come to fruition.”

Local control

Darien has been adamant that it knows best what would suit its residents and the character of its neighborhoods.

One of the limitations Darien faces when developing affordable housing is finding the space. According to the housing plan, 98 percent of Darien has already been developed, so expansion is mostly limited to redeveloping existing spaces — and residents have historically protested changing existing buildings to multi-unit housing.

As a case in point, the development at Parklands — turning an unused office park into housing — was originally approved in February, but was stalled by a lawsuit from neighbors alleging it would devalue their property and damage the nearby nature preserve. The case was settled at the end of October, a month after construction was slated to begin.

 FCCHO director Aicha Wood said that “tremendous opposition” to larger-scale developments and affordable housing is a big issue in Darien, but not one that is unique to the town or Fairfield County.

“It's something that we see across the country, particularly in wealthier neighborhoods, particularly in suburban neighborhoods that have been very kind of monoculture or segregated or really restricted to a single type of housing,” she said. “People are very resistant to any kind of change for a variety of reasons, but I think the more examples of this kind of innovative type of design ... people will realize it makes our communities better.”

Some on the Planning and Zoning Commission took the Parklands settlement as an optimistic sign.

During Planning and Zoning’s State of the Town presentation, Vice Chairman George Reilly said the agreement could mark the beginning of similar conversion opportunities.

“I’m aware of other commercial properties on the market that may also result in such conversions, and there is potential for a significant change in the commercial profile of the town in coming years,” Reilly said.

Ginsberg said a “delicate balance” was required when navigating between existing residential desires and future developments.

“The residential market is quite hot now, compared to, say, the office market or the retail market,” Ginsberg said. “Things might not always be that way, and I think Darien does not wish to be an entirely residential community. So the (Planning and Zoning) Commission needs to find that appropriate balance.”

For instance, the town opted out of the 2021 state law that allowed single-family homes to convert part of their dwelling or detached structures like garages into accessory — often called in-law or granny — units without municipal approval. Wood said adding the accessory units is "a really creative way to add density without changing, without cutting down trees or making the neighborhood look different.”

Ginsberg said the the Planning and Zoning Commission is expected discuss affordability and ADUs in 2023, although there remain serious concerns about overwhelming municipal services, and that “there was no guarantee it would be affordable, so at that point, what is the town really gaining?”