Some 25 interested residents were in attendance at an informational meeting on housing in town, a meeting conducted on Wednesday, March 30, by the Woodbridge Housing Opportunity Study Committee. It took place in the Vine Family Auditorium at the Woodbridge JCC. The purpose of the meeting was to provide an update on the housing info the committee has collected over the past year or so and to engage the residents in a conversation about housing needs in Woodbridge, and, more specifically, the lack of affordable housing.
The Housing Opportunity Committee is tasked to come up with a plan which might help increase the availability of affordable housing at a time when home prices as well as rental prices are spiking. The state has mandated all towns to come up with a plan that gets them closer to the 10% goal of affordable housing.
In Woodbridge some 1.27 % of homes are considered affordable. Kristine Sullivan, the town’s Zoning Enforcement Officer, said in 2020, 44 properties were identified as affordable, mainly by way of government mortgage assistance provided to the residents. The largest concentration is along Lucy Street.
The town is under pressure from several sides simultaneously when it comes to housing opportunities. In addition to the state requiring all towns to take an active role in working out a plan that will put them on the path of increased housing opportunities, Woodbridge in particular last year faced the Open Communities Alliance zoning application, which requested to allow multi-family housing at 2 Orchard Road, as well as suggested to open the whole town to multi-family housing.
The Zoning Commission at the time made watershed protection the guiding principle of its decision. Properties along water and/or sewer lines – now referred to as “the infrastructure” – are allowed to be developed with greater density than those that are not along those lines. That includes the Country Club of Woodbridge property, which has access to an existing sewer line running along Ansonia and Woodfield roads.
Zoning regs also changed in terms of accessory buildings, which are now allowed throughout the town. Sullivan said her office has received several inquiries regarding accessory buildings, which is considered one way to make it possible for seniors to stay in town.
Amey Marrella, a former First Selectman and attorney, took issue with the phrase “negative impact of 1.5-2 acre zoning,” a phrase that was used in the handouts. She said it was the DEEP that recommended 2-acre zoning to protect the watershed area. She also pointed out that there were a number of properties in town that are “naturally” affordable, in the sense that they would sell for half of the median home price, and she suspected that a number of others could be identified as well. But, because there is no deed restriction attached to them, they don’t count toward the official inventory.
Dominick Thomas, a land use attorney who chairs the Housing Study Committee, explained that affordable housing is housing that costs less than 30% of people’s income, whether for rental or home ownership. What the state is looking for is deed restrictions to make sure that a unit stays affordable for the foreseeable future. In Woodbridge, 63% of renters and 29% of home owners have housing costs that are higher than 30%, and are therefore considered “cost burdened.”
Another resident questioned whether those new units would be filled if every town has to provide 10% affordable units. For Attorney Thomas, that was a non-issue. The last few years have seen a marked decline in building permits, he said, which led to a lack in housing stock generally. “If you build 4-bedroom colonials, I am not sure how much of a demand there would be,” he said. “If you build condos, they would sell pretty quickly, but if you build 1-2-bedroom studios, they would be sold before they’re finished.”
Another concern that many residents expressed is in regards to a potential increase in school-aged children, which might require the elementary district to construct a new building. In response, Thomas referred to a study by Rutgers University, which shows that towns can control the influx of school-age children by limiting the number of bedrooms in each unit. In fact, it’s the 4- or 5-bedroom colonials that bring in families with larger numbers of children, he said.
“The goal of our…plan is to create a blueprint as to how Woodbridge can comply with state and federal statutes and build a vibrant town,” the committee stated in one of its handouts. “In this manner, the town would have local control as to its developments…”.
Kathy Hunter, a member of the Committee, pointed out the need for affordable units. “What we found through our research is a third of Woodbridge residents are cost-burdened,” she said. “That’s why we’re going through this exercise.”
Selectman David Vogel chose to look at it differently. “The reason we are going through this is because the state wants us to comply with their law,” he said, although he did agree that affordability and diversification are good goals for the town to have.
Matt McDermott thought their proposals are all “very mild, reasonable and incremental.” He referred to the changes enacted after the Open Communities Alliance challenges last year, and pointed out that the percentage of affordable housing had not budged since then. “That is extreme,” he said.
Even though the attendance at the info session seemed sparse, many residents did take the two surveys on the subject, one regional sponsored by the South Central Council of Governments (SCROG), the other sponsored by the town’s Housing Committee. The latter had some 619 responses, 80% of which were from local residents. Others said they worked in Woodbridge, but lived in other towns.
Results of both surveys are available on the town’s website, under the Housing Committee’s webpage, https://www.woodbridgect.org/536/Housing-Opportunity-Study-Committee.
In addition to links to the survey, residents can also find responses to open-ended questions that were part of the survey. Responses ranged from “Woodbridge is fine just the way it is;” to “No section 8 housing. It will ruin the town;” to “I have many friends who were stay-at-home moms and found it impossible to stay in Woodbridge after the divorce. It was heartbreaking.”
The committee has received a list of suggested “strategies” as part of the SCROG report for Woodbridge. Housing Opportunity Committee members are going through those strategies to prioritize as they see them working best for local conditions. The finished product will be presented to the Board of Selectmen at the end of April, in time for the selectmen to discuss at their May 11 meeting.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent