greenwich house via david ogily and associate

Letter From Greenwich: What We Talk About When We Talk About Affordable Housing

“Forget it,” a Greenwich friend predicted, when I told him I was seeking local points of view for an article I was writing about a Connecticut statute known as 8-30g. “No one will talk to you.”

 

His remark made me laugh. The statute in question—like most things in the realm of urban planning and zoning—is equally complicated and arcane; it basically sets municipal targets for guaranteed long-term affordable housing. It’s not as though we’re talking about organized crime or a cold-case murder. How could something so dull, so earnest, inspire such a dramatic response?

 

But, of course, my friend wasn’t kidding: 8-30g has been controversial since it was introduced. Nor was he entirely wrong. There are people in Greenwich who have a lot to say about 8-30g, but almost no one wants to talk on the record. In the surreal world of Greenwich real estate, where new million-dollar condos seem to spring from the earth fully formed almost every day while mansions in the $10 million range are commonplace, planning and zoning (P&Z) will always be fraught.

 

Some history: In the 1980s, with the state of Connecticut facing a housing crisis, then-Governor Bill O’Neill put together a Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing to find ways of addressing the problem. The commission’s findings led to the creation of “the affordable housing land use appeals procedure,” typically referred to as 8-30g.

 

Enacted in 1989, and based on an older Massachusetts law called the Comprehensive Permit Act, 8-30g sets a target that 10 percent of available housing across the state should be affordable. The state doesn’t count just any cheap housing; only deed-restricted and government-assisted units qualify as affordable for the purposes of the statute. (“There’s plenty of cheap housing for staff at the country clubs, but they don’t count those!” a friend observed, in what struck me as a very Greenwich moment.) Residents earning less than 80 percent of the area median income need to be able to pay not more than 30 percent of their income in rent or mortgage to live there.

 

It’s all quite complicated, but the intention behind the statute is clear: lawmakers aimed to create conditions that would result in more affordable housing, something few would deny that Connecticut needs. In practice, however, it’s been tricky. One rather obvious—and not unforeseen—effect of 8-30g is that it allows developers to circumvent local P&Z regulations, because as long as a town is below target, a developer whose project is denied by the P&Z Commission can appeal under 8-30g. If a denied project has enough affordable units—the law requires three affordable units out of every 10—it falls to the town to show that there is a significant threat to public health or safety. If the town can’t demonstrate that, the project goes ahead.

 

In the simplest terms, this means that developers can build multifamily housing in zones where it otherwise wouldn’t be allowed. Shifting the burden of proof to the town makes appeals costly for municipalities, and the town often loses in the end anyway. A recent proposed project in Greenwich, on a flag lot behind the beloved Two Door restaurant, was appealed under 8-30g and turned down because of questions about access for emergency vehicles; the project was ultimately approved after the developer provided more information.

 

Town residents often spend hours waiting to voice their concerns at P&Z meetings; but when a project goes ahead despite those objections, a general sense of frustration begins to build, and this was where some of my off-the-record conversations with locals began.

 

“I feel like I’m chronicling the end of our town,” Leslie Yager told me. “Like our town is vanishing because every inch is worth a million dollars.”

 

Leslie Yager, founding editor of a local news website called the Greenwich Free Press, was one of the few residents who would speak to me on the record. “I feel like I’m chronicling the end of our town,” she told me. “Like our town is vanishing because every inch is worth a million dollars.” Greenwich used to be an affluent community with a range of incomes; now, it’s essentially the richest town of its size in the U.S. Words like “affordable” start to lose their meaning in this outlandish context.

 

Yager, who grew up in nearby Darien but has been a Greenwich resident for many years, refers to downtown Greenwich as the “teardown zone.” Demolition of older homes is commonplace, and much bemoaned. Even a few years ago, the housing stock in the downtown zone was largely made up of single-family homes; these houses, built in the 1920s, typically need major renovations and repairs.

 

With home prices rising faster than wages nationwide, it makes sense that a house like that, coming on the market with a million-dollar price tag or higher, appeals to developers more than to first-time home buyers. There are other housing markets like Greenwich around the country: commutable to a major metropolitan area where, basically, middle-income people can find jobs, but can’t afford to live near those jobs. And, if you’re buying in Greenwich and commuting to Manhattan, a brand-new condo probably makes more sense than a crumbling old stately Victorian, however much the latter might be more in keeping with the town’s character.

 

It wasn’t always like this, Yager reminded me: “This was affordable housing,” she said of the downtown Greenwich zone. “The houses here were, like, $400,000. This was a blue-collar neighborhood. The people that lived in this house before me—she was a phone operator, and I think the husband was, like, an electrician. Basically, over time what’s changing in our town is more and more affluence, and so it puts the squeeze on everything that used to be affordable.” Now, she said, “people put notes in my mailbox to buy my house.”

 

Greenwich P&Z meetings are open to the public, with dates and agendas published on the town’s website well in advance. However, for various reasons involving being a working single mother, I’ve never managed to make it to one. Accordingly, I follow Yager’s detailed coverage of P&Z meetings on the Greenwich Free Press site with an interest bordering on obsession. The drama came to a head in late October, when longtime P&Z Commission chair Richard Maitland was ousted in a tight vote. The discussion centered around his willingness to work with developers, and whether or not he was looking out for the needs of the town.

 

In all my conversations with residents about the statute, I never heard phrases like “those people,” but I did hear concerns about “declining property values” and “overcrowded schools,” arguably code for keeping the wrong people out. 

 

So what are the needs of the town? During the past year, the P&Z Commission held community meetings as it drafted its new Plan of Conservation and Development. This document, updated every 10 years, is meant to guide development according to community concerns. “Affordable housing” made the list as the second-most-mentioned item, right after “traffic.” Others included historic preservation, protecting the tree canopy, keeping traffic bearable, and allowing plenty of green space—the kind of concerns that public-housing advocates sometimes lump under NIMBYism. In all my conversations with residents about the statute, I never heard phrases like “those people,” but I did hear concerns about “declining property values” and “overcrowded schools,” arguably code for keeping the wrong people out, and also explicitly the kind of thinking that statutes like 8-30g are designed to defeat—or to prevent P&Z codes from sneakily enforcing.

 

Some decry developer-driven gentrification, but I can’t quite make the narrative fit downtown Greenwich. It’s true that longtime residents are relocating, some forced out by rising costs, but this isn’t a poor, urban neighborhood; it’s an affluent community, commutable to Manhattan, where single-family homes are being replaced by upscale condominiums.

 

To reduce developers to the greedy villains of the story is simplistic. Many local builders are also town natives, and some express (off the record) how much they hate seeing the town they grew up in fall to the wrecking ball, one single-family home at a time. Delays in the approval process present an added expense for the developer, which, in turn, makes developers eager to make that money back on the sale of market-rate units. Rising property values affect developers’ bottom lines; other costs keep rising, too; and it’s hard to make a project reliably profitable when stagnant incomes plus aging housing stock plus rising property values mean that new homes often sit on the market for a while.

 

All of this arises from the fact that, despite good intentions, the P&Z process in Greenwich still plays out as a struggle between residents and developers, with “advocates for affordable housing” hovering over the discussion as ghostly presences, more often invoked than actually seen or heard.

 

Nearly everyone seems nostalgic for a world where most people can afford to live near where they work, and where maybe the architecture doesn’t completely suck. Correlation is not causation, but New York City was better before poor and working-class people could no longer dream of buying real estate there.

 

Searching for the perspective of a true advocate for affordable housing leads me to a 2001 article in the Western New England Law Review by Terry J. Tondro, a law professor and land-use and planning expert who was one of the members of the original Blue Ribbon Commission on Housing. If you’re willing to wade through some dense language, Tondro beautifully expresses why affordable housing is needed. In sum, he asks us to consider how a community works. Where do teachers, nurses, nannies, volunteer firefighters, retail workers, live? How much can they afford to spend on housing? Should people who fill these vital roles commute long distances to work in our town? What if the children who leave to go to college can’t afford to come back? What if companies based here can’t lure talent because of the cost of living is too high?

 

He points up a flaw in the original commission’s logic, one that seems to bring us directly to the struggles still playing out today: While some similar statutes called for the creation of administrative agencies to assess issues of affordable housing—such as New Jersey’s Fair Housing Council, for example—Connecticut’s commission elected not to do this, deciding it would be “politically and administratively unfeasible.” Instead, as Tondro writes, “we relied on the market sense of the builder as a surrogate for the affordable housing need in a town; if the builder was willing to proceed with an affordable housing project there was probably a market in that town for that product.”

 

As Tondro acknowledges, this kind of trust in the inherent wisdom of “market forces” was popular in the late 1980s, when 8-30g was introduced. When he wrote about the topic almost two decades later, his tone was a bit rueful: “The downside,” he notes, “is that the developer’s decisions about where to build will almost always be based simply on market considerations … rather than on planning considerations such as where it is best to provide housing for low- and moderate-income families.” Almost always?

 

“The statute seemed like an elegant solution in a second or third-best world,” writes Tondro. He refers to 8-30g as having “middling results” that were, at best, difficult to quantify.

 

Meanwhile, affordable housing continues to languish in Greenwich: the target is 10 percent, and the town has around 5 percent of housing that meets the standard of affordability. Major corridors in Greenwich aren’t developed to the point that even current P&Z laws would allow, a fact that makes me mildly nervous as I watch the town I’ve lived in for only five years disappear already.

 

Yet it’s clear that 8-30g has led to the construction of more affordable units here than would otherwise exist. In order to make those units financially feasible, it’s true, developers have demolished old housing stock and built market-rate condos, often wedged sideways into ordinary lots. Residents grouse about high-density housing near the Metro-North, but from a planning perspective, that’s exactly where it should be built.

 

Can Greenwich get denser? It can and, arguably, it should. Can it do that while maintaining its “character”? Even an idealist like Tondro, who died in 2012, would probably agree that ship has sailed. Then again, he might remind us, 8-30g is about finding a solution that works in a second- or third-best world. It’s the people, not the buildings, that make the town work. And the people need housing they can afford.

Featured image via David Ogilivy & Associates.

 

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