Local: Open Woodbridge Campaign (Connecticut)

In late September 2020, a group of affordable housing development advocates convened a press conference in front of a Connecticut community’s Town Hall. Representatives of Open Communities Alliance and Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School organized the event to announce their submission of a 145-page document to the Woodbridge Town Plan and Zoning Commission. The Application to Amend Woodbridge Zoning Regulations and Plan of Conservation and Development includes an application to amend the Town’s zoning regulations, a historical account of Woodbridge’s zoning, and a legal argument against the Town’s planning practices.

2 Orchard Road, Woodbridge, Connecticut (New Haven Independent)

The application to amend Woodbridge’s zoning regulations calls for abolishing single-family zoning townwide in order to allow multifamily uses by right. Included in the application is an example proposal to replace an existing single-family house at 2 Orchard Road with a four-unit multifamily housing development. Under Woodbridge’s current zoning regulations, multifamily housing is not allowed at this property, nor any other single-family residential zoning district in town. The proposed multifamily development meets all other existing setback, parking, bulk, building height, and area requirements. Through siding materials, window placement, and unit entries, the proposed 2-story design is meant to mimic the form, scale, and appearance of a single-family house. Still, this proposal for 2 Orchard Road would not comply with the current zoning regulations. However, with a few minor alterations, a very similar design for 2 Orchard Street (with comparable occupancy) could be approved under the existing regulations.

Proposed 4-Unit Multifamily Development on Orchard Road

According to the report’s historical account of Woodbridge’s zoning regulations, the Town’s residents and planners have intentionally excluded small residential lots, multifamily uses, clustered development, condominiums, and other types of housing resulting in a lack of socio-economic diversity in the Town. Woodbridge has, instead, increasingly zoned for large lot single-family housing since the 1930s. The Town has repeatedly chosen not to liberalize its land use regulations, despite many developers’ attempts to propose amendments to the zoning regulations to allow for multifamily developments.

The authors of the Application claim that by preventing multifamily housing development, Woodbridge is in violation of various State statutes and Federal laws. According to this legal argument, the Federal and State Fair Housing Acts, Connecticut’s ban on segregation, and Title 8-2 of Connecticut’s General Statutes obligate Woodbridge to offer greater housing opportunities to low- and moderate-income households in the region. The report suggests that adopting the proposed Opportunity Housing Zoning Regulation, which would allow multifamily housing developments like the 2 Orchard Road proposal in the Town’s existing single family districts, is a way to remedy the supposed violations.

While the Town’s stated reasons for maintaining its exclusionary zoning mechanisms sometimes reference the physical status quo (preventing traffic congestion, preserving open space), often public opposition to any density increase has been rooted in protecting the socioeconomic status quo—keeping property values high, keeping families in more diverse neighboring towns out of Woodbridge schools, and keeping out would-be newcomers who cannot already afford to own a single-family home on a large lot.

-Application to Amend Woodbridge Zoning Regulations (p. 51)

DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT agrees that Woodbridge’s large lot single-family zoning likely contributes to a lack of opportunities for low- and moderate-income families to move into town. This represents a problem for addressing housing demands in the Greater New Haven Region. When housing options for working families are restricted to existing residential units in polluted, high-tax, and high-crime areas served by low-achievement schools, negative externalities eventually bleed out into the larger society despite the efforts of some towns to wall themselves off. Higher healthcare costs, higher state and federal income taxes, worsening service provision at low wage jobs, and many other downsides may result from continued socioeconomic segregation.

Woodbridge’s historic rejection of developer’s applications for denser housing and continued focus on large lot single-family zoning has enticed the ire of affordable housing advocates.

As to the other claims, assertions, and proposals made by the authors of the Application to Amend Woodbridge Zoning Regulations, DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT finds many instances of disagreement.

Should Woodbridge residents be shamed for wanting to keep their property values high and stable? After all, property tax revenue allows the Town to provide services like public schooling, fire protection services, and park and open space management. Local residents are legitimately concerned about allowing a significant amount of moderate-cost rental housing for families because those land uses often require more services than they contribute in property tax revenue.

Moreover, by enabling denser housing development, planners may need to attract more industrial and commercial development in order to offset the costs of public services. In the 20th century, nearby towns like Orange, North Haven, and Branford underwent a similar process in response to an influx of moderate-income and middle-class residents, rising demands for services, and exploding property tax rates. Adopting the proposed Opportunity Housing Zoning Regulations may, over time, transform Woodbridge’s traffic patterns, infrastructure demands, and physical appearance to the dismay of many residents.

The Costs of Multifamily Housing
To help address the issue of segregation, advocates of the #OpenWoodbridge Campaign propose that the Town allow multifamily development in all residential zones, including the existing single-family districts. Furthermore, the proposed zoning regulations would mandate that multifamily developments be deed-restricted to ensure that a portion of units are set aside for rental-assisted and moderate-income households. According to page 80 of the Application,

Allowing multifamily housing is a “particularly strong” remedy to desegregate neighborhoods, driving substantial and statistically significant increases in the Black and Hispanic population.

The construction of single- and two-family dwellings are regulated under the International Residential Code (IRC). Multifamily construction must adhere to the International Building Code. The IBC sets far more stringent standards and often requires hiring an architect. Multifamily buildings are often required to have fire separation between units and common spaces, fire suppression systems like sprinklers, two means of egress, handicap-accessible units, and elevators in multistory, corridor buildings. All dwelling units require full kitchens and bathrooms. The significant costs and physical changes required for multiple dwelling units limit future adaptability. These expenses virtually necessitate long-term debt financing and often are not affordable to low-income households without subsidies. As previously mentioned, multifamily housing built for low- and moderate-income households often consume more services than they contribute in property taxes despite the high relative cost of multifamily construction.

The construction of multifamily housing can be very expensive – ranging from a few to several hundred thousand dollars per unit.

Wealth Creation and Multifamily Housing
On page 81 of the Application to Amend Woodbridge Zoning Regulations, the authors make the following point:

The well-documented racial wealth gap impairs members of communities of color from purchasing residences in a Town with median home value in excess of $400,000.

The authors are correct that existing properties in Woodbridge are prohibitively expensive for many of the region’s families to purchase and continue to use as a single-family residence. The proposed multifamily zoning regulations, however, do not address this issue. Multifamily rental housing provides an opportunity to build equity and wealth for owners and investors, not tenants. Besides, the real wealth gap in America is not, as many activists incorrectly assert, between residents of places like Woodbridge and residents of places like Hamden, West Haven, or New Haven. The real wealth gap is between tax-sheltering and rent-extracting investors and tax-paying salaried workers who live in the communities from which developers seek to extract wealth.

Activists often attempt to use residents of places like Woodbridge and households with low- and moderate-incomes as tools for advancing their own social, political, career, and academic status. In the case of the #OpenWoodbridge Campaign, activists are empowering professional real estate investors rather than existing Town residents and the families they are purporting to help.

Liberalizing land use regulations may attract speculative developers, rather than help new and existing residents build local wealth and community.

If there is demand for rental units in Woodbridge and developers find that they can turn a $350,000 single family home into a $700,000 multifamily real estate asset, absentee rental property investors may begin to acquire property in town. Under this scenario, the price per unit may be lower in multifamily buildings, but the property will become even less affordable for homebuyers to purchase.

In the unlikely case of a buyer occupying one of the units, that owner-occupant’s ability to make mortgage payments will depend on reliably collecting rental income from every other unit. Complying with the affordable housing requirements and deed-restrictions may be too complicated for novices, thus limiting multifamily ownership to absentee real estate professionals. Furthermore, demand for public services could increase fourfold, while the increase in property tax revenue to the town will only increase twofold.

Alternatively, the burden of complying with the proposed mandatory affordable housing component for multifamily construction may end up deterring developers. Redeveloping single-family lots for multifamily use also requires a homeowner putting a property up for sale, a developer out-bidding other homebuyers, installing a new well and septic system, finding income-restricted tenants interested in living in Woodbridge, and navigating the other complexities of a development project. In this case, Woodbridge might see few residential properties redeveloped for multifamily use and the Opportunity Housing Zoning Regulations would be more symbolic than practical.

In any case, real estate investors and developers will only provide housing to others so long as they can guarantee a minimum return on their investment, which is dependent upon their ability to generate rent from tenants in access of the expenses to own and operate the rental property. Achieving significant affordable housing development and welcoming more working families into the community may require a different approach.

Commercial and Authoritarian Development vs. Community Building

To put the claim simply and directly: the Town’s zoning restrictions preclude the development of new affordable, multifamily housing by private actors.

-Application to Amend (p. 91)

Herein lies the disconnect between the #OpenWoodbridge advocates and many of the Town’s existing residents. It ought to be legal to preclude private (speculative) actors with zoning restrictions. The problem is that the Town’s zoning restrictions also precludes the development of new affordable housing by non-speculative actors.

Activists have failed to make a distinction between commercial or authoritarian actors and democratic or community actors. As a result, the misunderstanding and dismissal of legitimate claims made by local residents at public hearings continues. Woodbridge residents have already articulated this distinction. At a Town Plan & Zoning Commission meeting on January 26, 2015,

A “lifelong resident of Town and former member of the Board of Education” was “bothered by the proposed changes for the CCW and the concept of cluster housing,” characterizing the developer Toll Brothers as “house builders, not community builders.”

-Application to Amend (p. 37)

The #OpenWoodbridge Campaign is, on the one hand, correct that Woodbridge’s large lot single-family residential land uses likely exacerbate the region’s housing issues. On the other hand, local residents are also right that Woodbridge’s future development shouldn’t be guided by top-down planning and dictated by out-of-town activists on behalf of developers. Is there a remedy to this situation?

The Town’s zoning regulations ought to include the development of new affordable housing by community actors.

The #OpenWoodbridge Campaign advocates for reforming the Town’s zoning regulations to allow multifamily construction on existing single-family properties. Design guidelines could help new multifamily buildings to mimic the physical appearances of surrounding homes and mandatory affordability would limit some units to moderate-income tenants. The concern about the physical appearance of properties may be misplaced. It is possible that allowing smaller residential lot sizes served by piped water would better preserve the “character” of Woodbridge, rather than allowing multifamily buildings designed to look like large single-family dwellings.

Cities like Minneapolis and Seattle and States like Oregon and Vermont have garnered widespread news media coverage in recent years due to their efforts to allow multifamily development by right in formerly single-family zones. Rather than adopt the practices of other places, Woodbridge might consider looking a little closer to home for alleviating affordable housing concerns in the region. If residents, planners, and activists truly seek a collaborative way forward, they can follow the path of existing trails laid by two communities at the base of West Rock.

In New Haven, all residential property owners citywide, including those within the City’s two single-family zones, are currently allowed to create additional housing units by right. Structural changes to residences require building permits and exterior alterations require zoning review by the City. Nonstructural changes to the use of existing rooms, however, require only written approval from the enforcement officer. Furthermore, residential lots that do not conform to lot size or width in New Haven may, nevertheless, be developed with dwellings so long as other bulk, yard, and parking requirements are met.

In order to discourage speculative development of residential property in Woodbridge, Town planners might consider adopting a version of New Haven’s accessory housing provisions, but limiting it to owner-occupied properties. Nearby towns like West Haven, Milford, Hamden, Branford, and Guilford have owner-occupancy requirements tied to their Accessory Dwelling Unit provisions.

One of the biggest oversights of the #OpenWoodbridge campaign is that much of the Town’s housing is under-occupied. While much of the community may be close to fully built out under existing zoning with large-lot single family houses, those existing residences are not fully occupied under existing regulations. Additionally, many houses can accommodate additions, dormers, and accessory buildings. It is true that a four-unit multifamily building identical to the one proposed for 2 Orchard Road cannot be built under the existing regulation. However, with a few design revisions, a remarkably similar building with comparable occupancy could be built.

Country Club of Woodbridge Property

While perhaps not an example of what to build, the Woodbridge Flats might offer a model for how to build new communities in town. An affordable rural housing program would better suit a place like Woodbridge than rent-assisted multifamily developments. In any case, there are many ways for the Town to accommodate more affordable housing options. The point is: existing and future residents ought to play integral roles in development efforts, including the building of new communities on properties like the Country Club of Woodbridge and Baldwin Road Farm.

Denser development on sites with access to piped sewers and water may also make sense in certain parts of town, though the role that expanding sewer and water infrastructure in the 1920s played in the Great Depression should also be understood. Multifamily uses, however, should be pursued with caution and only after other efforts like expanding accessory housing provision, higher occupancy of existing residences, new community development projects, and denser housing around supportive infrastructure are exhausted.

The report submitted to the Town of Woodbridge by the Open Communities Alliance makes some valid points about the impact of large lot single-family residential land-uses on housing affordability and opportunity in the Greater New Haven Region. Woodbridge’s existing zoning has enticed developers to propose denser housing developments. The Town’s continued rejection of those proposals over the years has attracted the attention of activist groups. The solution to Woodbridge’s inaction around zoning reform, however, is not to give in to the interests of speculative real estate developers nor to accept the preferred solution of affordable housing advocates.

To remedy Woodbridge’s exclusionary policies, activists and the Town ought to empower current and prospective residents to lead community planning and development efforts.