From the Founders I
Planning Our Town’s Future: Part 2 — Housing
Last month we reviewed the Plan of Conservation & Development’s focus on the environment, especially the conservation and protection of our water supplies, flood control, proper land development and tree preservation. In this installment we take up housing — the nagging problem of affordability and amending our present zoning regulations for greater control of home size, lot coverage and the overall pattern of residential development.
The stated mission of this part of the POCD is to “Protect residential neighborhoods and address housing needs.”
Housing Inventory & Build-out Potential
Planning & Zoning has determined that there are currently 17,964 residential lots, and only 548 vacant ones. However, under present zoning law, if vacant properties were to be developed into building lots, the commission estimates it would add approximately 2,350 new lots. This translates into a potential increase of 3,372 in new dwelling units, with the greatest number coming from conversions of one-family to two-family units along with new two-family units in the R-6 zone. While these potentials point to an increase in density, it is interesting to note that compared to a gain of roughly 20 percent in dwelling units, the POCD projects an increase of 100 percent in potential floor area. It is unlikely we will see these levels of development realized in the next ten years, but if that happened it could add as many as 8,770 people to our town population.
Cited in the document is our transition from a first phase of residential development in which homes were built on new and vacant lots to a second stage in which fewer and fewer buildable lots remain, and most new homes involve teardowns, or at the very least, a major rebuilding of an older home.
The consequences of this may be both positive and negative: The new house will certainly be bigger, have more contemporary features and be more expensive, but at the same time our inventory of moderately priced homes will be reduced. The imposition of much larger houses on small lots can change the character of a street, and the bulky scale of some new homes can create a loom factor. Other negative results of building large houses on small lots are a potential increase in on-street parking and an increase in impervious areas that can contribute to flooding through storm water runoff. The POCD suggests several ways to address the problem of oversized houses: setback averaging that helps integrate the new home with its neighbors; stepped setbacks that set the building farther back according to its height; and cubic footage limitations (as distinct from floor-area ratios).
Density has also become a major factor in the character and desirability of some neighborhoods. The sheer cost of land in Greenwich has encouraged the combining and consolidation of lots, often involving teardowns, in order to create more lots. Density is also increased by the conversion of single-family into two-family homes in R-6 zones. Building regulations do not require two-family homes to have additional lot area nor are builders required to have their plans for two-family homes reviewed by Planning & Zoning. This lack of oversight has made building or converting single-family to two-family units a popular hassle-free route for developers, particularly in R-6 zones. The POCD recommends that Building Zone Regulations be amended to require a special permit in order to exercise greater control over this type of development.
Other high priority recommendations include revisiting the contentious arena of FAR (floor-area ratio restrictions) that builders have found ways to circumvent; developing new types of regulations to improve control over house size and bulk; and considering the establishment of lot coverage limitation in residential areas.
The commission recognizes a significant trend in the development of luxury townhouses that have displaced more modestly priced homes on streets such as Milbank Avenue and East Elm. Town house living is attracting upper income empty-nesters and singles. The gentrification of housing is taking place elsewhere in the center of town as well, changing the demographics of downtown Greenwich. Certainly, the net result of new houses replacing the old is an upgrading of our home inventory, but it also marks a decline in the number of lower priced homes affordable to middle income homebuyers.
Of the various programs to provide moderately priced and below-market housing, the most familiar is subsidized housing, popularly known as public housing. Tenants may be living in subsidized housing projects, or they may be living elsewhere and be receiving direct personal subsidies to pay their rent. Under the federal Section 8 program, the government pays 100 percent of the tenants rent in exchange for 30 percent of his income — even if there is no income from which to take a percentage. There are 708 individuals who live in privately owned apartments receiving vouchers to pay their rent, and there are 1,541 individuals who live in federally or state financed public housing units such as Wilbur Peck Court and Agnes Morley. Of the 5,000 rental units in Greenwich, 2,000 are either owned by the Housing Authority of the Town of Greenwich or leased through the Section 8 voucher program. The Greenwich Housing Authority has received national recognition for the quality of its subsidized housing programs.
There is considerable public confusion over just what is meant by “affordable housing.” The term applies specifically to forms of housing that are not “market rate,” and for which a buyer or tenant receives no governmental financial support. The most common application is where the builder or developer has voluntarily priced the units at an amount that the state deems affordable based on median household income. This is generally in exchange for some relaxation of zoning regulations that might allow, for instance, greater density or act as an incentive in commercial zones for mixed-use housing.
The state requires that each town’s ten-year plan of development address steps by which the town will try to reach a goal of at least 10 percent of its housing stock qualified as affordable according to the state’s definition. In our case, qualification criteria are derived from a formula based on 80 percent of the median household income of the state rather than the local area. There is, of course, a wide disparity between the two median household incomes, with the result that to qualify under the state’s definition, units would have to rent for no more than $1,640 per month — an obviously difficult goal to achieve given the cost and availability of land, as well as construction and operating costs in our area. Still, Greenwich has managed to qualify slightly over 5percent of its housing units under the state’s arduous definition. This is less than Stamford and Norwalk, but more than double New Canaan, Darien and Westport. In fact, only nine of Connecticut’s 169 towns have met the 10 percent threshold.
Nevertheless, a great concern to the POCD commission is how to address the critical lack of affordable housing for those whose incomes are well above those qualifying for government subsidy but below what it takes to buy a home in Greenwich. How can Greenwich retain qualified teachers, policemen, firemen and town employees including department heads, service and mid-level employees of all kinds public and private when the nearest affordable houses often entail an unpredictably long and, today, costly commute on I-95?
The United Way of Greenwich recently conducted a study of workforce housing for the 5,545 municipal employees plus employees of public schools, Greenwich Hospital and selected nonprofit agencies. With an average salary of $65,500 for town employees, the study points out that even a two-income family would be limited to homes in the range of $450,000 to $600,000 in a town where the median sales price of a single family home is $2 million and where the rental market has been named the highest in the country.
It is no surprise that the study found that 67 percent of the town employees (and 75 percent of the teachers) live out-of-town and that they spend an average of an hour and forty minutes commuting round-trip. Based on an estimate of 22 mpg at $4.00 per gallon, the UW estimates that the average annual employee cost for gasoline alone is $1,800. The workforce commuters in this study represent only 15 percent of the estimated 26,000 who commute into Greenwich daily. Because Greenwich municipal employees face this added cost of commuting, their wage rate is well above the state average for municipal employees. The UW study estimates this wage premium to cost the town roughly $12,900 per employee per year. Whatever the actual cost, there is no question that the increased number of workers publicly and privately employed commuting into town has created a growing traffic burden on our local streets. The UW report also cites the environmental impact of this commutation in the annual discharge of four tons of CO2 per commuter.
One interesting and practical answer to solving the shortage of housing for some with limited income is found in the provision for affordable accessory apartments constructed within existing single-family homes. It is available to families whose incomes are not more than 80 percent of the Stamford/Norwalk SMSA area median income. For a family of four, this currently amounts to approximately $94,000, and the rental is limited to $2,350. Accessory units do not qualify under the state “affordable” definition, but they can often answer the needs of elderly citizens, without any limitation on income, and young couples.
Moderate Income Housing, as defined in Greenwich Building Zone regulations, is designed to fill the housing needs of applicants whose income does not exceed the median annual wages of all full-time town employees, including teachers. The qualifying formula for these deed-restricted units limits the sales price and maximum rental to such an extent that relatively few have been built.
Transit Oriented Housing
The POCD’s most imaginative and possibly quite practical solution to providing both market rate and affordable housing is the concept of transit oriented mixed use development. This concept calls for taking advantage of town-owned parking property at train stations to build mixed-use commercial and residential structures while maintaining parking. The idea of decking over the town-owned Island Beach or the Horseneck Road parking lot has been bandied about for some time. With residences and offices at transportation hubs, out-of-town commuter car traffic would be reduced. A public/private partnership could also provide some revenue to the town from leased office space. The same concept could be applied to vacant commercial properties on the Post Road where bus transportation is available.
The problem raised in the POCD is that there is little coordination or oversight of these various programs. There is, for example, a limited ability to monitor the income of tenants to determine if they still qualify under the terms of the programs. The POCD recommends that there be a housing section within the Community Development Office that would coordinate the different affordable housing programs and monitor tenant qualification as required by state law and, secondly, develop new and innovative ways to provide affordable housing.
— Jack Moffly