NEW CANAAN, Conn. >> The offices of Hobbs Inc., a third-generation homebuilder here, are lined with awards and framed articles for the firm’s decades of work. “2008 Best Residential Remodel Over $3 Million.” “2010 Outstanding Home Over 12,000 Sq. Ft.” “Imus in the Afternoon.” “Living Very Large.”
In his wood-paneled office on Thursday, Scott Hobbs was going over what may be his most challenging project yet: the Millport Apartments, a 73-unit affordable housing complex in the center of New Canaan. In addition to being president of the family business, Hobbs is chairman of the housing authority for this town of 20,000 — a place more often associated with Philip Johnson’s Glass House and Waveny, the 300-acre estate of a founder of Texaco, not to mention custom-built Hobbs homes on half- to 4-acre lots.
In Fairfield County, by many measures the most economically stratified county in perhaps the most economically stratified state in the country, New Canaan has recently become something of an affordable housing leader.
Not that the town had much choice in the matter. A 1990 state law meant to reverse decades of housing discrimination requires all of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities to guarantee that at least 10 percent of their housing units are affordable. In New Canaan, where the average home sells for $1.4 million, that number stands at 2.7 percent.
“The problem is, the state is using a bazooka,” Hobbs, a former tank commander, said. The housing program “should fit in with the existing communities instead of just blowing up what everyone loves about them.”
All across southwestern Connecticut, some of the wealthiest communities in America are grappling with the mandate to make room for those who are not wealthy. Some towns like Fairfield have implemented mandatory inclusionary housing programs, similar to those in New York City; Darien, after spending millions on blocking projects, has started building its own; while Milford, just a few inlets up the coast, has faced down numerous lawsuits and politicians have turned this issue into a reliable get-out-the-vote tactic.
Tim Hollister, a partner at the law firm of Shipman & Goodwin, has fought more than 100 cases against towns under the state law. About a quarter have been in Fairfield County. “In the past decade, I won’t say the towns have embraced it, but they’ve learned to live with it,” Hollister said. “And nobody’s turned into downtown Stamford.”
The law responsible for all this, statute 8-30g, is rather simple and straightforward. Every Connecticut community must ensure that 10 percent of its domiciles are affordable to a family earning, in most cases, about $64,000 a year or less. If not, developers effectively have the right to ignore zoning restrictions and build whatever housing they want, so long as 30 percent of those units are set aside as affordable. Towns can get a four-year reprieve, however, if they ensure a certain number of affordable units have been built.
To borrow Hobbs’ metaphor, the law has created an affordable housing arms race. And it was one of New Canaan’s own who launched the first salvo.
Charles Berman, a resident and real estate executive experienced in wrangling with local ordinances, started Avalon Properties (later known as AvalonBay) in 1993. Among the firm’s first projects was 104 apartments on a private parking lot next to the New Canaan train station. The proposal, which overcame restrictions on multifamily housing by including 21 affordable units, was resoundingly rejected by the local planning commission but repeatedly upheld in court. After five years, the town settled the dispute and swapped out the parking lot for a parcel a mile away, though still near downtown.
After that ordeal, town officials decided to take matters into their own hands. In 2007, over strong opposition, a 1 percent surcharge was approved on building permits for all new or renovated homes, in order to create an affordable housing fund. The town has about 7,500 households, only 178 of which were affordable at the time, so if New Canaan could build roughly 45 to 55 new units every four years, it could stave off outside projects through the 8-30g moratorium.
“It has to be done in harmony with the character and the atmosphere of the town,” said Laszlo Papp, former chairman of the planning and zoning commission, who came up with the surcharge. “Right now, we’re just limping along from four years to four years, trying to do whatever we can.”
The most obvious site for new units was in place of the town’s few old ones. Next to what became the Avalon property, New Canaan in the 1950s had built a group of 16 bungalows for veterans (coincidentally constructed by Hobbs’ grandfather). Those were torn down, and townhomes with 40 affordable units, known as the Mill Apartments, were built in their place. With colorful vinyl siding and stainless steel appliances, the complex opened in 2011 and does not look very different from Avalon’s luxury homes next door.
The 24 additional apartments were not enough to qualify for a moratorium, so officials turned to a complex of 18 apartments built in 1983 as federal public housing. These are now being redeveloped as the Millport Apartments, which the town broke ground on last month. With 73 units, built by New York’s Jonathan Rose Cos., the expansion will not only cover the first four-year moratorium but also go toward a second.
“I’ve worked in Connecticut affordable housing for 12 years, and I’ve never seen a wealthy suburban town as proactive about this as New Canaan has been,” said David McCarthy, a senior project manager at Jonathan Rose Cos.
But officials insist that after existing affordable housing has been upgraded — this includes one other potential parcel, Canaan Parish, which was privately developed in the 1970s — they will be out of viable land. Will the town spend millions buying large homes to demolish and replace with smaller ones, which might fill schools and sewers without filling the tax coffers?
“If we had to build more housing, that would mean we couldn’t build a new school or firehouse, which we would need precisely because of the new housing,” said Chris Hussey, a real estate broker who helped build Canaan Parish.
And yet, the town managed to build 410 units of new housing between 2000 and 2010, according to the census. Only 43 of those were affordable, and 25 more have been built since.
The town has proved itself to be innovative, if also inflexible. A recent proposal to turn a former mill into 16 condominiums, five of which would have been affordable — the rest would sell for as much as $2.2 million each — was fiercely opposed by neighbors. Ultimately, the town agreed to 10 units, none for low-income families, and instead the developer paid $200,000 to the housing fund.
“The town is better off with a real mix of people,” Ned Truslow, a 15-year resident, said last week. “This housing is a good thing, so long as it’s not ugly, which is what really bothers people.”
Many living at Millport share their neighbors’ concerns.
Donna Mills won the housing lottery, literally and figuratively, and moved in eight years ago. She cannot wait for a new apartment, with a dishwasher, in the redevelopment, but she is equally grateful for the apartment she has, far from the drug dealing and violence of her old home in Norwalk.
“There were a lot of people who would look at you funny, when we first moved here,” Mills said inside her tidy two-bedroom duplex. “They could tell. But now my boy’s about to graduate from college, and that’s all that matters.”
Indeed, both sides might be more allies than enemies when it comes to new development.
“I understand the argument, but five or six stories is just too big,” said David Ritch, a mechanic from Stamford with tattoos and a Harley-Davidson who has lived here almost two years. “Then you’re packing people in like rats, and it starts to look like New York City. Nobody wants that.”
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