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Thursday, March 22 News

Design of new affordable housing complex underway

A new project that would increase New Canaan's affordable housing rate by about 1 percent is officially underway after the Town Council agreed to endorse the plan at its meeting June 18.

The unanimous vote came after Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Laszlo Papp bashed a state regulation requiring municipalities to have 10 percent of their housing stock defined as affordable. Papp said the regulation "makes no sense" since it doesn't take into consideration the amount of wealth in lower Fairfield County towns.

The Affordable Housing Appeals Act states that municipalities where at least 10 percent of structures are deemed affordable are protected from developers seeking to override local zoning to build affordable housing.

"It is a bad law. Worse than bad, it's a stupid law," Papp said. "I'm saying this because it makes absolutely no differentiation between towns which can achieve the so-called 10 percent affordability and towns which will never achieve (10 percent) affordability."

The new complex would bring the rate of housing units that are considered affordable in New Canaan from 2.4 percent to about 3.5 percent. With the project, which will be managed by the New Canaan Housing Authority, the town would qualify for a three-year moratorium under the state statute.

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Rate of affordable housing units (%)
Ridgefield: 2.3
New Canaan: 2.4
Darien: 2.6
Westport: 2.7
Wilton: 3.6

The council's approval allows the housing authority to appropriate up to $500,000 from the Affordable Housing Trust Fund for engineering and architectural design costs for the new units, which, according to the authority's chairman, Charles Berman, would replace Millport Apartments' 18 units with 80 new ones.

To reach 10 percent of affordability, New Canaan would need about 750 affordable housing units.

"No matter how diligently we work in that direction, and we certainly agree with the intent to have affordable housing units to those who need them, we will never achieve 750 affordable housing (units) in New Canaan," Papp said. "To put that requirement identically at the head of the towns and the cities makes no sense at all."

Besides New Canaan, other Fairfield County towns that are far from reaching the 10 percent housing affordability include Darien, which has 2.6 percent; Westport, 2.7 percent; and Wilton, 3.6 percent, according to Kleppin.

Millport and Mill apartments, both of which are located on Millport Avenue, offer housing to low- and moderate-income families. The rent for tenants living at Millport Apartments is 30 percent of their household income, according to the Norwalk Housing Authority, which manages the complex. At Mill Apartments, the monthly rent without subsidies is about $1,000, according to Bill Kinslow, of Plaza Realty & Management, which manages the units.

Mill Apartments underwent a similar expansion in 2011, when it was expanded from 12 units to 40, for a total cost of nearly $8 million.

The Affordable Housing Trust Fund comes from a fee charged against all applications for a zoning permit for any new building construction or addition in town. The inclusionary zoning fee is $10 per $1,000 of construction value, according to New Canaan's zoning regulation 7.6a.

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The funds continue to grow as building permits are issued. So far this year, the trust has collected $280,000, according to the Planning and Zoning Commission. In 2013, about $630,000 was collected.

The money is reserved for "constructing, rehabilitating or repairing housing affordable to persons and families of low and moderate income," the regulation states.

Berman noted that the trust is separate from the town's general fund and that the housing authority has its own financial capabilities.

"This project puts no burden on financial statements of the town," he said.

For the Mill Apartments expansion, he said, the authority sold bonds and received federal grants.

Some of the new apartments would have two or three bedrooms, but most of them would be one-bedroom units in order to "minimize any kind of impact on the school system," Berman said, since the demand for such housing in New Canaan is high. He said the waiting list for the complex is largely made up of people who work in the retail stores downtown and older couples.

Once the design and a traffic study are completed, the plan will need approval from the Planning and Zoning Commission.

As it happened during the Mill Apartments expansion, the families living at Millport would be relocated for about a year while construction takes place.

noliveira@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6582; @olivnelson

Nelson Oliveira|Education/general assignment reporter