Likening housing to running water, housing expert David Fink said we usually don’t think about it until it’s not available, and he encouraged the Housing Opportunity Study Committee to engage in conversation with the community and to be patient with one another. “Conversations will help clear up a lot of myths and misconceptions,” he said at an informational session for the public on December 6. Originally the meeting was planned to take place at the Jewish Community Center, but town officials canceled in-person meetings when Corona numbers spiked. So, the meeting was virtual, and started a half hour late, to give people who had missed the announcement to go home and log on.
Fink, a housing policy consultant who advises the South Central Council of Governments (SCROG) — of which Woodbridge is a member town — came at the invitation of the Housing Opportunity Study Committee to facilitate an introduction to a sensitive issue here and throughout the state.
Fink had his presentation consolidated in bullet points, which he went through, touching on the most stereotypical arguments that come up in these conversations, such as the influx of school-age children that will overwhelm local services; and the impact on property values.
People are afraid of change, he said, and a few may be unkind, but the majority will be open to hear about the experience of others and the research that has been done in this field. The interest in these issues is high currently, as the state has challenged its 169 towns to all come up with an affordable housing plan by June of 2022.
Some 37 participants were said to be following the presentation, and a handful of residents spoke at the end to address the committee, among them former First Selectman Amey Marrella.
Marrella encouraged the committee to look beyond cluster housing on undeveloped land. She said by allowing accessory apartments — which the Zoning Commission did earlier this year — more people may be able to age in place and stay in their own home, given appropriate support. She challenged the town to do a build-out analysis to show what the new rules allow. “I don’t understand why one isn’t in the works,” she said.
As for people economically “on the margin,” she recommended to look into programs that offer tax relief in return for making their homes legally affordable, thereby creating a win-win for those who live in those houses now and those who would buy them in the future. She said the town already has a tax relief program in which 102 households are enrolled.
Similarly, Woodbridge resident Cathy Wick suggested to look into a housing program dubbed “Inclusionary Housing,” which pinpoints “naturally affordable” homes and turns them into deed restricted properties. By working with existing housing stock, it may preserve open space and farmland. She specifically recommended looking into a program in Davidson, N.C.
One person in the audience suggested to the committee to look into Tiny Homes communities.
Fink stayed away from discussing the Country Club of Woodbridge property. He did say that his town, West Hartford, has created a lot of multi-family housing over the last few years, and it really helped the Grand List, which in turn helped keep taxes – well, not low, but lower than they would have been without it.
Fink included pictures of developments in and around the state which incorporate some affordable units, including in upscale communities such as Simsbury. They are what the market wants, he said. And, if properly designed, such developments can help stabilize communities.
In Woodbridge, some 21% of households are ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed) – in other words, the working poor.
As far as the correlation of number of bedrooms with the influx of school-age children is concerned, he cited a Rutgers University study, which found that with one- and two-bedroom apartments, the influx is minimal (0.04 and .27chilren. respectively), but the number rises to 1.38 children with 3-bedroom units. “You get more school children with four-bedroom colonials,” he noted. The issue is not the number of children moving into a community, but whether the school will have to add another wing or a classroom teacher, he added.
In terms of finding the right location, his recommendation is for towns to work with developers – walk through certain areas where multi-family housing may be a good fit and see what they suggest. Some towns have helped the process along by providing subsidies to make it worthwhile for developers to include units below market rate.
Fink said a pet peeve of his is when he hears people say “Our town is built out.” There is no such thing, he replied. There are always properties that can be re-zoned and used for something else.
The SCROG survey had a lively response in Woodbridge, said Dominick Thomas, the chairman of the Housing Opportunity Study Committee, even though there were a number of questions that did not relate to Woodbridge. However, sometime early in 2022, the Committee plans to put out a Woodbridge-specific survey to learn more about local housing needs. Thomas and his committee members hope that it will attract as much attention as the first one. Committee members include Kathleen Hunter, Nicole Donzelo, Elaine Friedman, Jim Graham, Buddy DeGennaro, Debbie Brander, Donovan Lofters, Dwight Rowland and Lewis Shaffer.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent