A group of housing experts on a mission to alleviate the lack of affordable housing in Connecticut are challenging the town’s zoning regulations as being exclusionary and, ultimately, racist in nature. Armed with the research performed by a group of Yale Law School students, the Open Communities Alliance (OCA) is taking a two-pronged approach: It is asking the Town Plan and Zoning Commission (TPZ) to adopt an amendment to its Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) to allow multi-family housing with an affordable component throughout the town; and to update its regulations accordingly; and at the same time the Alliance submitted an application to build a four-unit house at 2 Orchard Road, also with an affordable component.
In a hearing on November 30 that lasted over two hours, the commission heard the applicants lay out their appeal; followed by commentary from some 12 or so residents, some supportive, some adamantly opposed. The hearing took place via Webex, and was broadcast on the town’s Government Access Channel and on YouTube. Some 67 or so residents followed the presentation on Webex.
The hearing was continued to January 4, 2021.
Combined with another ten emails that were received by Town Hall, and which are posted on the TPZ webpage, the response from residents was overwhelmingly defensive.
“Woodbridge has been built over many years,” said Chuck Pyne during the hearing. “People worked hard to afford to live here. Injecting a tenor of race is gross.”
Dan Cowan, a member of the Woodbridge Board of Education, pointed out that the comparisons with neighboring towns such as Hamden, West Haven and New Haven are not valid, since none are in the same DRG (District Reference Group), used in public education to make comparisons between districts of similar socioeconomic make-up. “This has nothing to do with race,” he said. “This is just a foot in the door…to make more changes to our town.” And, adding a more politically colorful comment, he encouraged the commissioners to “tell the group of elitists to leave us alone.” But that is not likely to happen.
Erin Boggs, OCA executive director, said her group’s mission is to combat residential segregation with the goal of providing housing access and choice for all people. “We are here today to open Woodbridge,” she said in her introduction, “in order to end a long period of exclusionary housing practices.” She maintained that the town’s housing plans and regulations restrict the construction of multi-family and affordable housing, and as a consequence have kept out non-white residents. Even when faced with opportunities to change their ways, for example when negotiating the latest Plan of Development in 2014, the town doubled down on its opposition. “Woodbridge’s housing laws clearly violate the state’s constitution, various state statutes and the federal Fair Housing Act,” Boggs said.
A group of students, many from the Yale Law School, presented the results of their research of the town’s zoning history to make the case for their claim of exclusionary practices.
Sean Yang pointed out that multi-family housing, though mentioned in the zoning regs, is not assigned to any area. Similarly, a designated Affordable Housing District in the Woodbridge Village District has more restrictive regulations in terms of setbacks than for single-family houses. It has never been used, even though it has been on the books for years. Woodbridge Land Use Analyst Kris Sullivan said in a phone interview that the setbacks were designed for a large parcel of 8-10 acres.
During the hearing, student intern Karen Anderson looked at the history of zoning in town, showing how the requirement for larger lot sizes dating back to the 1930s has led to what a 1976 report called “snob zoning.” Even today, only 1.12% of housing stock in Woodbridge meets the state affordability standards, she said.
Student intern Hannah Abelow pointed out that state statutes require towns to encourage multi-family housing, including housing for low- and moderate-income families. “Towns are not licensed to act as islands onto themselves,” she said.
2 Orchard Road: Architect Jack Kemper presented the project he designed for 2 Orchard Road. The 1.5-acre lot, with a septic system designed for eight bedrooms, would fit four units onto the property, with vinyl siding that would make it look like “a regular suburban house,” he said. Although it would comply with all setback and height regulations, the parking for nine vehicles would be located in the front of the building.
Erin Boggs said OCA chose that property because it was reasonably priced and is a nice piece of property. If approved, the existing home will be taken down. The funding for the Alliance comes from a number of government and private sources, she said, including the Bar Association, the Graustein Memorial Fund, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as individuals. developer she is working with is Richard Freedman, a builder of trailer homes, including those in Bethany and Oxford.
As for what housing should be considered “affordable,” Boggs said across the country it is defined as constituting housing expenditures of 30% of the median income in a particular area. However, there are other ways to look at it as well. Subsidized housing, for instance, kicks in when people are spending half of their income on housing. In Connecticut, a developer gets ‘a leg up’ in court, when towns have less than 10% of housing deemed affordable. To get the go-ahead under state regulations, 30% of a proposed development must be affordable, with 15% priced for households at 80% of the median income; and 15% priced for households at 60% of the median income.
As for Woodbridge, with its wells and septic systems, she said that should not preclude multi-family housing. “All we ask is that the same rules that apply to single family housing apply to multi-family housing,” she said. At the same time the lack of infrastructure is often cited as an excuse not to allow construction of affordable housing. “Should the town be doing more on its infrastructure? Absolutely,” she said. Similarly, the lack of a bus line to many areas of town is not necessarily a stumbling block. About 75% of moderate-income families own a car, she said. Instead of using the lack of public transportation as an excuse for towns not to allow multi-family housing, they should let the need for a better transportation system be their guide, she said.
Sustainability and open space are common arguments brought up by residents when higher density development is being discussed. Don Poland, a planning consultant for Stafford Springs, who addressed the commission as part of the applicant’s team, said that sustainability is a catch phrase, which can become a euphemism for exclusion. “Sustainability means meeting the needs of the present population without compromising the needs of the future,” he said. What it often covers, though, is low-density suburban sprawl, large lot sizes, and a car culture, all of which keeps poorer populations out.
He also pointed out studies done by the MIT Center for Research, which found that contrary to popular belief, affordable housing does not impact property values for surrounding areas.
Among local residents who expressed support for the push for more affordable housing and diversity in Woodbridge was local resident Alana Rosenberg. “I do believe it is our obligation to create more affordable housing,” she said. She said it would be beneficial for her children to grow up in a more diverse school environment. Similarly, Jessica Bell and David Greisen wrote in their email that “diversity strengthens communities. It does not destroy them.” They encouraged the town to work with the applicants to reform exclusionary practices rather than spending resources fighting against change.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent