Old Town Hall Homes: Redevelopment process leaves residents unsettled
Residents at the Old Town Hall Homes, Darien’s senior affordable living community, have expressed concerns with how the local housing authority is managing the facility ahead of a major redevelopment project. The Darien Housing Authority oversees the complex, which is comprised of 30 single-bedroom and studio apartments spread across six buildings at 716 Post Road and is responsible for relocating the tenants.
In July 2016, Darien’s Planning & Zoning Commission approved a redevelopment project proposing to tear down the existing buildings and construct a single three-story building with 55 affordable units for seniors. The Darien Housing Authority and partner developer the JHM Group have been working since that time to secure funding for the project which is expected to cost approximately $22 million.
Construction of the new development is expected to take 18 months from demolition to completion, requiring the DHA to relocate the existing tenants of the Old Town Hall Homes for the duration of that time. During public hearings for the redevelopment project the senior residents of the Old Town Hall Homes said they would prefer for the existing buildings to be updated rather than going through a stressful relocation process. However, representatives for the DHA have stated that the overall quality of life improvements to the facility and increase in the number of available units justifies the redevelopment.
With the impending winter season putting a tighter window on construction, the seniors at the Old Town Hall Homes have been preparing to be relocated for more than a year but are still without concrete information on when the move will take place. At the same time, residents have complained that communication with the Darien Housing Authority has become more strained and maintenance at the Old Town Hall Homes have suffered. In letters to the Darien Times, two residents brought up a lack of snow removal as examples of where the complex has suffered and said a member of the housing authority was unsympathetic to their concerns.
Protecting seniors from unsafe conditions like winter weather or overexertion on stairways is one of the major motivations of the new development’s single building design. The new building will be outfitted with elevators and handicap accessible entrances; many units at the current facility are only accessible by stairway. Seniors at the existing facility must also travel outdoors to reach laundry machines, mailboxes and community spaces, creating a potential danger during winter months. Those shared spaces will all be accessible in the single building and the new one-bedrooms apartments will also be significantly larger than the existing ones.
Olive Hauser, Darien’s Director of Human Services, made additional recommendations to improve the safety of senior living facility, including the installation of electric stoves rather than gas. The Planning & Zoning Commission asked the Darien Housing Authority and developer John McClutchy of the JHM Group to consider other accommodations like handicap accessible bathtubs and generators in case of power outages.
All apartments at the Old Town Hall Homes are deed-restricted to those 62 years or older, and are limited to those earning 80% or less of the state median income. Those deed restrictions will also extend to new units constructed during the redevelopment. With the DHA preparing for the redevelopment and relocation process the authority asked Imagineers, the company in charge of management at the facility, to stop leasing out available apartments to tenants last year. A recent letter to the Darien Times for an Old Town Hall Homes resident stated that 20 of the 30 apartments are currently occupied.
Most of the $22 million in funding needed for the new Old Town Hall Homes building will come from state grants and private equity investments. Darien has made a contribution of $360,000 from the town’s affordable housing trust fund to help with construction costs. The DHA does not currently pay real estate taxes on the OTHH property, but would begin paying at a reduced rate on the redeveloped building. Under a tax abatement approved earlier this year, the town will receive about $550,000 over the 40-year period, starting with a payment of $9,075 in February 2020 and increasing by two percent annually. Additionally, the town will no longer cover sewer expenses for the development.
Adding to the town’s affordable housing stock also helps Darien’s progress towards another moratorium on state statute 8-30g. The statute allows developers to circumvent local zoning to construct affordable housing if unless 10% or more of a town’s housing stock is considered affordable. The state Department of Housing re-issued a four year moratorium on the statute for Darien last year but the town must continue to show proof of progress towards more affordable housing.