Age restriction heavily debated on affordable housing unit
A poor business decision was one of the many accusations made at the Planning & Zoning Commission’s public hearing on June 25 as, after many months, discussions on Pemberton 16 have returned.
Tensions ran high as the current age restriction of those living in this development was hotly debated and critically analyzed for nearly an hour.
Pemberton 16 is an apartment building with 16 two-bedroom condominiums located on a 0.47-acre property on the corner of Leroy Avenue and West Avenue. It’s in the Leroy-West Affordable Housing Overlay Zone, where one member of at least 80 percent of the occupied units be 62 years of age or older.
The issue at hand involves changing the restriction to require at least one person in every unit to be 55 or over.
The reason for the requested change is “marketability,” said Robert F. Maslan Jr., attorney at Maslan Associates, who represents Pemberton 16.
“This project has been completed for over two years and as a result of the age restriction, it has not been marketable for sale,” he said.
While the five affordable units sold right away at the affordable prices, the other 11 have been “very difficult” to sell, Maslan said. None of them have sold.
There has not been enough interest in the units from people age 62 and older, according to Maslan.
The age 55 restriction is different in that it only requires one person in the unit to be over 55, according to Maslan.
“The problem is the brokers will get about two or three calls a week, and during the course of that inquiry, the perspective tenant learns about the age restriction and realizes they don’t qualify because everybody in the unit has to be over 62,” Maslan said.
Reducing the age restriction to where 80 percent of the units have to have at least one person who is over 55 “would make these more marketable,” Maslan said. “It opens up a larger market for rentals and most likely, sales as well.”
There are three units available for lease right now. One of them is under negotiation. At the beginning of September, two other units will become vacant. At that time, 25 percent of the units will be vacant.
The asking rents for each unit is $3,750 to $4,700 per month. The rents that are actually being settled on are running between $3,700 and $4,300, according to Maslan.
Maslan said he would like the same parking density for his application of 55 and older as the required density for parking for the elderly. Housing for the elderly in the Darien zoning regulations is defined as a dwelling unit where at least one person is 62 years or older.
Planning & Zoning Chairman John Sini disagreed with Maslan, and said the parking issue is going to be what everything comes down to.
“We all know there is less parking density required for [those who are] 62 years and older because of the general activities in that community,” said Sini, adding that there would be “more activity” in a 55 and older community.
He said he is concerned that there’s not enough parking room to satisfy a younger population within that facility.
If people who live in those units can be under 55, “typically, there will be at least two cars per household in some of them. So then you have a parking issue as you liberalize the age requirements,” he said, adding there could potentially be someone in their 40s as well as a child living in the units.
“It’s a much different community than 62 and older, where everybody’s got to be 62,” Sini added.
“Not our problem”
Commission member James Rand said while he understands the property is not selling, he doesn’t believe this should be a concern of the Planning & Zoning Commission.
“That’s not our problem. I don’t believe that the Planning & Zoning Commission should involve itself in an application which is driven simply by the fact that the owners have done a bad deal for themselves,” Rand said. “I don’t think we should even consider this.”
Darien resident Tom Birmingham said if the applicant wants this to be an owner occupied unit, “you can make it all affordable. You can just lower the price.”
Attorney Mark Gregory of Darien said the Planning & Zoning Commission does not exist “as a vehicle for economic bailouts for poor business decisions made by people who are well-positioned to do the research and to know better.”
“The private interests of the owner do not and should not override the public interests here,” Gregory added.
A Planning & Zoning Commission special meeting will continue the discussion on Pemberton 16 tonight, Monday, July 1.
Local officials have stressed the importance of creating a diverse housing stock in Darien as aging homeowners often look to migrate away from the town when they decide to downsize.
Chris and Margaret Stefanoni originally proposed the Pemberton 16 project in 2008 with five affordable units but the site plan was rejected by the Planning & Zoning Commission because of its density. However, the Stefanonis challenged the decision in court and were able to have their site plan approved by a state judge based on state statute 8-30g.
State statute 8-30g allows developers to circumvent local zoning in towns that do not meet the state’s affordable housing goals, which include making at least 10 percent of the local housing stock affordable.
While Darien doesn’t meet the goal of statute 8-30g, the town successfully earned a second four-year moratorium on the statute in 2016. Because the town is 97 percent developed, Darien must prove to the state that it is making consistent progress toward the 10 percent affordable housing goal. As it stands, Darien’s housing stock is less than 5 percent affordable.
At the time, Judge Henry Cohn of New Britain explained his decision by saying “The test is whether substantial safety concerns outweigh the need for affordable housing. The commission has not met this test.”
The site plan was approved in court in 2012 and the property was later sold to another developer, Nick Barile, in 2014. Though Barile worked with town boards to review the site plan, the project retained its approved density. Construction on the project finished in 2016, and while the five affordable units have sold in the range of $200,000, the other 11 units in the building are being offered as rentals.