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Affordable Housing Committee Moving Ahead On Three Tracks

By John Goodwin
Town of New Canaan Affordable Housing Committee

Last year the New Canaan Town Council passed an ordinance establishing an Affordable Housing Committee. The Committee's mission is to work with the New Canaan Housing Authority and other Town bodies to increase the number of affordable housing units in New Canaan, with a goal of achieving local control of housing decisions via successive moratoriums under Connecticut's 8-30g statute.

Connecticut Statute 8-30g is complex, as is the topic of affordable housing. Under 8-30g a housing unit is deemed ‘affordable’ if the residents make less than 80% of median income. In essence, the statute enables developers who seek to build housing projects with at least 30% of the units deed-restricted as affordable to avoid the zoning regulations maintained by the Town's Planning and Zoning Commission (P&Z). The exception is if P&Z can demonstrate clear risks to health, safety and welfare that outweigh the benefits of additional affordable housing. In various cases the state's courts have shown that to be a high bar. Consequently most 8-30g projects get upheld in court and result in buildings that are incongruent with the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development and the zoning regulations that are continuously reviewed and improved to implement the Community’s vision.  

Towns can maintain control of new residential development either by having 10% of the town's housing stock deemed affordable, or by building enough new affordable units to achieve four-year moratoriums. On the former, New Canaan is at 3.93%, and almost all agree that getting to 10% is unrealistic. Therefore, the New Canaan Town Council determined that achieving successive moratoriums is a priority.    

As you may know, New Canaan currently has three 8-30g applications that have been denied by P&Z and are currently in litigation between the P&Z and the applicant. While New Canaan has dealt with both friendly and contentious 8-30g applications in the past, the scale and locations of the most recent applications spurred a renewed focus on the criticality of 'local control' and hence the establishment of the Committee. The Affordable Housing Committee is not involved in negotiating these applications.

On a positive note, for a small town, New Canaan has a strong track record in the provision of affordable housing. That includes multiple projects built under the supervision of our local Housing Authority, including the recently completed Canaan Parish. New Canaan is one of the few towns in Connecticut with an affordable housing trust fund and two years ago, P&Z added inclusionary zoning regulations to be applied to multifamily development applications, among other affordable initiatives.              

Our Affordable Housing Committee has determined that to maintain successive moratoriums the Town will need to construct 70-100 additional affordable housing units within the next four to five years. In determining the number of affordable units needed, the Committee assumed that the Town's 2024 moratorium proposal, currently being evaluated by the State, will be approved in late May. The Town is also in litigation with the State on the previously denied 2022 moratorium application. To be conservative with the estimated number of new units required, the Committee assumed the Town will not prevail in that litigation.

Given the time necessary for site identification, design, approvals, construction, etc., four to five years is a challenging timeline. Despite the need to work expeditiously, we understand that any site proposals will not be without controversy, and it is part of our mandate to include the public in all stages of the process. We aim ultimately to recommend multiple affordable housing proposals to all the relevant town bodies for their evaluation, and one of the criteria to be considered in each recommendation will be the level of public support.  

Three tracks
So what is the Committee doing? We are moving ahead on three tracks. First, recognizing the complexity of affordable housing economics, financing, legislation, regulations etc. we are bringing in experts to our regular monthly meetings for educational purposes. So far, we have heard from developers, the Town Attorneys, the Town Planner and financing experts. After just two such meetings, the input has been critical to understanding how potential project proposals will need to be shaped. At the next meeting on May 13 at 7pm (Town Hall and via Zoom), we expect to hear from an affordable housing advocacy group, colleagues from neighboring towns on some of their initiatives, and a planner who has worked with both New Canaan and other towns on affordable initiatives. Our goal here is to equip ourselves in the evaluation process and to educate the community.

Second, we have established a Project subcommittee. Its mission is to establish criteria for future affordable housing project sites and to start actual potential site identification. Key criteria being considered include project size, density and location impacts, land ownership, and composition of affordability (i.e., whether the project is to be 100% affordable or 'mixed income' etc.)

Third, we have established a Financing subcommittee. Affordable housing is typically financed by a complex ecosystem that includes federal and state tax credits, local financing, and debt. The subcommittee will examine different approaches to get this done most cost effectively. Both subcommittees are meeting between our regular meetings, and all meeting schedules can be found here at this Affordable Housing Committee webpage.

The Affordable Housing Committee encourages and welcomes all community input. We are in the early stages of considering a Town-wide forum in the early Fall at which sample renderings and sites could be shared for more formal community feedback before compiling recommendations for the Town’s decision-making bodies. As noted earlier, this will not be an easy process, and we anticipate strong feelings in our community. Please be assured that the Committee’s focus is on increasing New Canaan's affordable housing supply in a manner that reflects community input, discussion, and control.