Crisis In Affordable Housing Hits Connecticut's Suburbs
Developers are taking advantage of a down economy to build more affordable housing. It’s happening even in the small-town suburbs of Connecticut, where people are forgoing the big country home for smaller, more energy-efficient houses or rental apartments. In the small Danbury suburb of Ridgefield, not everyone is happy about the changes.
“They spent a lot of money, they bought a home, they were very happy in their neighborhood, and now they’re seeing that neighborhood change," said Rudy Marconi, the town's First Selectman. "And people generally speaking in our society do not accept change very well at all.”
Marconi grew up here when there were just a few thousand people; now there are 25000. He understands that newcomers to Ridgefield don’t want those gigantic houses; they want smaller, more energy-efficient homes or even rental housing. But that’s going to take some getting used to by the people who’ve lived here for decades.
Just this year, plans to build a total of 39 rental units in apartment-style buildings have already been approved. Some of them will be designated as affordable housing. That means around $1100 to $1400 a month in rent for a two-bedroom apartment.
Developers say the time is ripe for units like this in Ridgefield. But the residents nearby aren’t happy about it.
“I would have liked to feel that I have some kind of community where we can have some control," said Amale Hawi, sitting on an enclosed back porch in her single-family, 2400 square foot home on New Street.
Hawi has lived here for 12 years. Many of her neighbors have been here for generations.She says she doesn’t have any problem with affordable housing in her neighborhood. But she thinks the new development just around the corner could destroy the character of the town. It’s plunking down eight units on just a third of an acre. Around here most people live on one unit per acre.
“It’s not clear where people are going to park, there’s no green space, there’s nothing," she said.
As word of the new developments spread, about 80 people starting showing up regularly at Planning and Zoning meetings. They voiced concerns about busy traffic on tiny roads, and sewer systems already at capacity. A petition protesting the new developments got over 600 signatures. But nothing changed.
Members of the Planning & Zoning commissions say they had to approve all the developments because their hands were tied by a Connecticut statute known as 8-30G. In a town like Ridgefield, where only two percent of housing is considered affordable by state standards, developers who build affordable units can use 8-30G to override local zoning codes. If Ridgefield doesn’t like it, the burden is on the town to prove that the units are a danger to public safety or health. And that usually ends up happening in court.
“The 8-30G is a meat-axe approach.," said Jonathan Chew, who is director of the Housatonic Valley Council of Elected Officials, a regional planning agency.
"Whack!" He slapped the table in his Brookfield office for emphasis. "That spot is going to double it’s density. Whereas the town plan had been thought out over years how everything should go…oh, I don’t care. Whack!”
HVCEO says the greater Danbury region has been growing faster than any other in Connecticut, and by 2020 it’ll have 7 percent of the state’s population. So the need for affordable housing is clear. And many people who work in the region don’t live here anymore, because they can’t afford to.
“About a quarter of the people that enter the region every day come in from the East where the housing is cheaper in the Waterbury area," Chew said.
The market is changing in Ridgefield. Home prices began declining slowly in 2005, a few years before the housing bust. And since 1960, the percentage of single-family homes in town has gone down from 96 percent to 85 percent. Marconi says the best way to develop affordable housing is to put it near mass transit, not in the middle of nowhere.
“If we’re not going to have the cities where you can live and walk to work, and you want the suburbs to take some of the responsibility, let’s do that in a smart way," he said.
The problem is -- there’s no real mass transit in Ridgefield. The Branchville train station is several miles from downtown and the town and doesn’t have its own bus system.
Ridgefield is applying for a moratorium on 8-30G applications. But it will still need a plan. David Goldenberg is chairman of Ridgefield’s Affordable Housing Committee. He agrees with the attempts to stop 8-30G applications as long as Ridgefield still makes a commitment to more affordable housing within its borders.
“Communities have to ask themselves, what do we want to be?" Goldenberg asked. "Do we want to be exclusive enclaves or do we want to be communities that are broadly inclusive of everybody?”
The town planner says it will take months to prepare the moratorium application. In the meantime, rumors are flying that more developers plan to come to Ridgefield and use 8-30G. For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.
For more on this story, visit the Connecticut Mirror at ctmirror.org.