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.

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 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 this exact 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 disappointment 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. 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 like Woodbridge, Hamden, West Haven, and New Haven.

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 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 overall property will become 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. 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 zoning likely exacerbates 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.

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. Multifamily uses, however, should be pursued with caution and only after other efforts like expanding accessory housing provision, 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 zoning 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.

Local: Yale Law School ‘Preventing Displacement’ Report (New Haven)

Several major American cities and States across the country have recently enacted land use reforms to encourage higher density, mixed-use, and walkable development. A clinic at the Yale Law School, working in collaboration with the City of New Haven, recommends amending the City’s zoning regulations in accordance with popular planning trends. The following article, however, suggests that more low-cost housing units could be created if existing provisions in the zoning ordinance were promoted to residential property owners.

In May 2020, the Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School released the report Preventing Displacement: Three Approaches to Protect New Haven Residents. Home to the world-renowned research institution of higher education with a multi-billion dollar endowment, New Haven is a diverse Connecticut city of 130,000 residents in a metro area of nearly a million people. The Report identifies a housing crisis in New Haven that is largely characterized by a lack of affordability for many of the city’s low- and moderate-income residents, which may lead to short- and long-term displacement. The Report offers three approaches for preventing residential displacement.

First, it proposes a series of tenant protections targeted at reducing evictions and increasing landlord accountability. Second, it considers strategies for new development that can provide affordable alternatives for residents: single room occupancy, accessory dwelling units, and rezoning single-family areas to allow for multi-family buildings. Third, it covers strategies for foreclosure prevention, including changes to tax liens and the initiation of foreclosure mitigation strategies. Each section then provides policy proposals, some which can be implemented at the municipal level and some which require action at the state level.

“Preventing Displacement” p. 4

DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT applauds the efforts of the student researchers and the law school professors that worked on this project. Their efforts attempt to address some of the housing issues currently impacting the small New England city in which their academic institution is located. There is much to unpack in the authors’ description of the housing crisis in New Haven, the three approaches offered in response to that crisis, and the specific policies proposed in the report.

For the sake of brevity, however, the following commentary will be limited to concerns with the second section of the Report, Development, which deals with reforming the City’s zoning regulations and encouraging small-scale development like Single Room Occupancy (SRO), Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU), and multifamily conversions of single family residences.

‘Preventing Displacement’ or Encouraging Dispossession?
All quotes are from pages 15-25 in the Preventing Displacement Report.

The first, and best, way to allow more construction in New Haven’s wealthier enclaves would be to abolish single-family RS-1 and RS-2 districts. Cities across the country have up-zoned such properties within their municipal limits.

Since the Great Recession, institutional investors, acting through real estate professionals, have spent millions – often in cash – to acquire thousands of properties and amass a vast portfolio of rental properties in the City of New Haven. Upzoning residential neighborhoods may increase the value of properties and encourage large-scale investment firms to further acquire residential properties many of which are currently owned by their occupants or hyper-local landlords.

Multiple Dwelling Units: A Type of Inexpensive Housing?

While New Haven has taken laudable steps to welcome all forms of residential construction, this section will primarily focus on zoning and financing strategies to promote small-scale, inexpensive development.

On the one hand, the Yale Law School Report does promote some housing strategies and unit types that tend to cost less than new market rate development. These strategies and types include small-scale development interventions, homeowner participation, and the conversion of existing spaces to new uses. Housing that is only slightly less expensive than new market rate development, however, is not affordable to low-income households. Much greater cost savings is required. On the other hand, by promoting dwelling units, multifamily construction, and professional real estate development, the authors of the Preventing Displacement Report are actually advocating for some of the most expensive housing strategies.

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 must have fire separation between units and common spaces, fire suppression systems like sprinklers, two means of egress, handicap-accessible units, and elevators in multistory buildings.

Even two-family houses require a minimum of 200 amp electrical service, whereas 100 amps is sufficient for a single-family dwelling. All dwelling units must contain full kitchens and bathrooms. Detached back yard dwellings require extending existing sewer, water, and electric service from the main house to the new unit, or establishing new connections to the street. The significant costs and physical changes associated with creating new dwelling units limits their adaptability.

The construction of additional dwelling units can be very expensive – ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit.

Restrictive Zoning or Restrictive Information?

In many American cities including New Haven, restrictive zoning limits the potential for new and creative housing development, including SROs, ADUs, or the conversion of single-family homes to accommodate multiple households. We offer several regulatory land use policy changes to mitigate this problem.

The Report is correct that New Haven’s zoning regulations limitat residential density by placing a cap on how many units may be built. DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT, however, believes that a lack of information about existing zoning provisions, rather than restrictive regulations, may be a larger issue in the city.

New Haven should permit its existing SRO zoning as-of-right across the City or across a larger swath of downtown.

Unbeknownst to the authors, the City of New Haven already allows SROs citywide. These existing provisions are more restrictive than what is advocated for in the Report, but they nevertheless exist. The City might consider expanding existing provisions before undertaking the difficult political fight of allowing Rooming, Boarding, and Lodging Houses in residential districts.

The City should also reform the zoning code in its single-family neighborhoods to allow property owners to construct ADUs or convert preexisting single-family zones to allow for multi-family construction.

As difficult as it may be for the authors to believe, New Haven already allows multiple housing units on single-family residential properties in the RS-1 and RS-2 zoning districts (the City’s two single-family zones). Furthermore, many two- and three-family houses that were built prior to the City’s adoption of zoning in the 1920s exist within single-family districts.

Under New Haven’s existing regulations, residential property owners citywide are allowed to create additional housing units by right.

Interestingly, the existing zoning provisions allow for the creation of housing units that are less costly than the types of housing that would be allowed by the recommended regulations in the Report. New Haven could allow ADUs or multifamily conversions in single-family zones, but doing so only makes sense if similar goals cannot be achieved by promoting the creation of additional housing units under existing provisions.

Zoning Approvals in New Haven

New Haven should allow owners to convert their properties to multi-family lots or to construct additional units without requiring homeowners to go through the burdensome zoning board approval process.

Outside of New Haven’s single-family zones, multifamily conversions are common. For buildings of sufficient size, conversion requires only administrative zoning approval and building permitting. For buildings of insufficient size or where exterior additions like dormers are desired, the Report is absolutely correct that applicants must go through a zoning approval process, which can be burdensome, and often results in denials.

The student authors are right about some multifamily conversions, but they are incorrect about additional housing units always requiring zoning approval and building permitting. In many cases, residential property owners in New Haven are currently allowed to create additional housing units with only written approval from the enforcing officer. When interior structural changes are being made, a building permit and fee are required. Exterior alterations, like additions, require zoning review in addition to building permitting. Merely changing the use of existing rooms, however, can be accomplished at virtually no cost.

Minimum Parking Requirements

Parking minimums are a burdensome and unnecessary requirement both for families who wish to add a new unit to their homes and for developers that wish to build SROs, subsidized apartments, and even standard market-rate units.

In New Haven, additional off-street parking is only required when: 1) adding dwelling units to a property in any district or 2) when increasing the number of bedrooms to a house in the city’s single family zones. Additional housing units that are not dwelling units, however, do not require additional off-street parking spaces. In single family districts, decreasing the number of bedrooms decreases the number of required off-street parking spaces. Therefore, parking minimums are not necessarily a burden for families who wish to add a new unit to their home or developers that wish to build SROs.

The Report’s broad point that higher minimum parking requirements tend to increase housing costs is fair. DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT agrees that reviewing New Haven’s parking requirements is worthwhile. For instance, the City might consider allowing more efficient parking space arrangements in residential districts and calculating parking requirements based on dwelling units, rather then bedrooms, in single-family zones.

SROs and the Spectrum of Housing Types

When SROs are available, they can provide “the last rung on the housing ladder before homelessness,” though they still cost $450 to $750 per month in expensive cities.

Considerable variety in cost is possible with Lodging Houses depending on the location of bathrooms and presence of shared living, dining, and cooking space. On the full spectrum of housing options, SROs are on the middle rung between dwelling units at the top and less expensive types of housing at the bottom. Rental rooms, particularly those not in Lodging Houses, must play a role in addressing affordable housing issues, but they may not be a viable solution for many households, especially those with children.

Code Enforcement

Short-term rental regulation would preserve the primary use of SROs and other micro-units for New Haven residents while maintaining an Airbnb market. New Haven should adopt […] policies […] to limit the conversion of long-term housing to short term rentals.

Other than in commercial districts and licensed Lodging Houses, New Haven currently prohibits renting out bedrooms for stays fewer than seven consecutive days. DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT believes that the City of New Haven ought to figure out a way to enforce its existing regulations before adopting new ones. At the same time, New Haven’s Livable City Initiative housing code inspectors have been incorrectly issuing citations on accessory housing units. As a result, many affordable units have been decommissioned or required to be converted into dwelling units.

Supply, Demand, and Financing for ADUs

ADUs can increase a city’s housing stock and reduce income segregation by providing low-cost housing in fairly wealthy areas. While building new housing can be prohibitively expensive and perceived as risky by investors, ADUs are cheap to build and a low-risk alternative.

As stated before, dwelling units, including those built under accessory provisions, are a relatively expensive type of housing. ADUs may be lower-cost than new multifamily construction, but this housing type is often more expensive than other housing units such as SROs.

Increasing the overall supply and density of dwelling units, whether through ADUs, conversions, or new construction, may help stabilize or even lower the price of housing in high-demand communities. However, the addition of dwelling units to a former single-family property may also substantially increase the property’s value, thereby making current and future owners dependent on constant rental income to cover their own monthly mortgage payments, even if the value per dwelling unit is lower than the original value of the single-family house.

While lending products to fund ADU development are increasingly available, many property owners still lack access to appropriate financing tools in their area to fund the design and construction of ADUs. As a result, ADU construction has largely been reserved for wealthier homeowners who have access to home equity loans, personal savings, and other funding sources for home improvement work.

Development Assistance for Residential Property Owners

A zoning reform package paired with subsidies and support for homeowners would increase the amount of new housing units in single-family residential areas.

For the reason stated previously, the Yale Law School Report is correct that zoning reform alone is not likely to substantially increase the number of additional dwelling units, especially affordable units, built in single-family neighborhoods unless there are subsidies. DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT supports promoting existing zoning provisions that allow for the creation of additional housing units without requiring new amendments to land use regulations, onerous approval and permitting, additional off-street parking, or the expense of creating new dwelling units.

The best approach for any situation depends enormously on the intended goal. If, in the case of housing development, the goal is to increase permit revenue for cash-strapped municipalities, attract real estate investors, and permanently increase the supply of dwelling units, then ADUs, multiple dwelling conversions, and new multifamily construction may be appropriate policies to pursue. If, however, the goal is housing affordability, government programs at the Federal, State, and local level will need to subsidize development and developers through rental assistance, construction grants, and tax breaks. Or, on the other hand, a city like New Haven could promote their existing zoning provisions that already allow for highly flexible and low-cost types of housing to be built throughout the city.

Aspects of New Haven’s existing zoning regulations may actually serve as appropriate models for other communities to adopt as they attempt to address housing affordability issues and segregation. If early efforts fall short of goals, then perhaps New Haven and other communities ought to look into expanding those existing provisions or adopting new regulations for ADUs, multifamily construction, and lodging houses.

As this commentary has indicated, there are benefits to looking at national planning trends to inform local efforts, but there is also a risk. Included in that risk is a proclivity to ignore or entirely miss existing local traditions that, if rediscovered and promoted, may achieve many of the same results as well-publicized, but politically-divisive, policies being implemented in other cities.

For instance, is allowing ADUs and multifamily conversions advisable in New Haven because it is the best policy for the city? Or is it being advised because rezoning efforts in places like the City of Minneapolis and the State of Oregon have garnered considerable publicity in news media? DEMOCRATIZE DEVELOPMENT believes that local communities should first understand and work with what they already have before looking to implement whatever planning policies are currently trending.