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State Program Designed To Boost Affordable Housing

By JODIE MOZDZER | Courant Staff Writer

July 06, 2008

Affordable housing is a sticky issue in Connecticut.

Towns often criticize proposed affordable housing projects as too dense or as not complying with development guidelines. But state housing officials say the lack of affordable housing in the state could prompt an exodus of young workers.

HomeConnecticut hopes to change that.

The new state program overseen by the Partnership for Strong Communities is designed to boost the number of affordable housing units in the state. The program gives towns incentives in the form of grants to work with developers to build affordable housing.

Previous efforts to fix the problem, namely an 18-year-old housing appeals law that helps developers get affordable housing projects approved even after towns reject the plans, didn't do enough, officials say.

Even with housing prices dropping, there is still a lack of start-up housing available to people in households with "moderate income," about 80 percent of the median income. Of about 1.4 million housing units across the state, only about 149,000 are considered affordable.

"The towns really seem to like [HomeConnecticut] because it gives them more control," said David Fink, the policy and communications director for the partnership.

Under the program, town planning and zoning boards can designate zones where affordable housing will be accepted.The program will give incentive payments to towns that approve affordable housing zones, and a second round of payments for housing units built in those zones. Additional grants are available for towns to help plan the zones.

Developers won't have to set aside as many affordable units under the HomeConnecticut program as they would to qualify under the affordable housing appeals law.

And if it works, more affordable housing will be available to entry-level workers, elderly residents and young families making about $65,000, which is about 80 percent of the median income in the state.

Connecticut's program is based on a similar one in Massachusetts that went into effect in 2005. Since the Massachusetts program began, 420 affordable housing units have been built, and approvals are pending for incentive zones and site plans in 25 towns.

A Touchy Issue

Affordable housing has long been a touchy issue in towns trying to balance overall development with entry-level housing. More for-profit developers are entering the affordable-housing market thanks to the Affordable Housing Appeals Law. Under the law, developers don't have to show why their project should be accepted; instead, towns must prove that a project would cause health or safety problems.

About 70 percent of appeals are overturned in the developer's favor, according to statistics gathered by Tim Hollister, a land-use attorney who had pushed for both the appeals law and the HomeConnecticut program.

For communities struggling with affordable housing, the magic number is 10 percent. That's the minimum amount of housing that has to be affordable either through government assistance, special mortgages or deed restrictions to make the municipality exempt from the appeals law. Only 31 municipalities meet that criteria.

In cities such as Hartford and New Haven, about 30 percent of housing is designated affordable. But smaller suburbs often have less than 1 percent of their housing stock designated as affordable. Redding, for example, doesn't have a single unit designated as affordable, according to annual statistics kept by the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

There has been strong interest from communities in the HomeConnecticut program, which was approved during the 2007 legislative session and opened for applications in April 2008. It is currently funded at $4 million.

Eight towns have applied for the planning grants, and three of those applications have been approved. Fink said he has spoken to the leaders of about 100 towns, and expects at least 30 applications to be filed by the end of the year.

The program has attracted the attention of towns with a long history of affordable housing appeals, in part because it's being billed as an alternative to the appeals law.

"Anyone rational should understand that if we can't have affordable housing in the community, we're going to lose all of our young people," East Hampton Town Planner James Carey said. "But [the appeals law] is a ham-handed way to go about it because it pits the developer against the town."

East Hampton has faced appeals before, and has already settled one with Pelletier Development LLC of Glastonbury. In June, the town denied another affordable housing proposal from Pelletier for 127 units on 24 acres. In its denial, the planning and zoning commission said the project would create a serious strain on the wells in the neighborhood. Pelletier appealed the decision. East Hampton hasn't applied for the grants, but has held workshops to learn more about the program.

But towns such as Ledyard, one of the approved applicants, haven't had any experience with affordable housing applications. Ledyard wants to take advantage of the planning grants to help improve infrastructure in its downtown to attract developers.

'Active Adult' State

The incentive zones will need to be approved through public hearings, in which resistance to affordable housing projects is common.

Joe Pelletier of Pelletier Development said he believes urban areas will be quick to adopt incentive zones, but the rural and suburban towns, where affordable housing is most needed, will be less likely to jump on the idea.

"You go to some of these hearings and hear people talk about children and families as the devil," said Pelletier, who supports the program. "Pretty soon we're going to be the 'active adult' state."

In Seymour, where about 5.6 percent of the housing is affordable, town leaders voted against seeking the planning grants the first step in the HomeConnecticut program.

New York developer Baker Residential had approached the town to propose working together on a 360-unit affordable housing development, where Baker had approval to build 53 single-family homes. First Selectman Robert J. Koskelowski said the number of homes would have negative effects on the side street where the development was planned and on the elementary school.

"The impact to the municipality and the amount of money the state would give you is pennies compared to the burden it would bring," Koskelowski said.

Norman Greenburg, vice president of Baker Residential, said he was disappointed the deal to build affordable housing fell through.

"I think it's absolutely inevitable that this has to happen," Greenburg said. "But it may not even happen within my lifetime."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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