The New York Times has an interesting article about a Justice Department probe into Darien, CT’s local inclusionary zoning rules. Inclusionary zoning means essentially that multi-unit developments have to offer a portion of the project as “affordable housing,” which invariably means charging below-market rents. We here at Market Urbanism oppose it because it essentially acts as a tax on dense development that’s not levied on the sort of one-off developments that are usually large lot, detached houses, which discriminates against the very people that it purports to be helping. While the people who live in the units certainly benefit from the too-good-to-be-true rents, every other poor person loses out as their housing costs rise.
But unfortunately, the DOJ doesn’t appear worried about inclusionary zoning generally, but rather is interested in the “priority populations” provision, which determines who gets the low-rent housing, which is in high demand because of the artificially low price. Currently the town favors current residents, which the Justice Department is right to find discriminatory, since the well-healed New York City suburb is overwhelmingly white.
While I’m always glad to see inclusionary zoning challenged, the focus on the priority populations provision strikes me as a bit narrow-sighted – they should be concerned about inclusionary zoning itself reducing affordable development. And in fact, the New York Times seems to recognize this, as they quote a developer at length as she describes the difficult of developing anything affordable in Darien. Sorry for such a long quote, but it’s very interesting:
Inclusionary zoning was one strategy for accomplishing that goal. The policy hasn’t been used yet, as no qualifying developments have been approved since it went into effect in May 2009.
The federal inquiry came to light last month, when Christopher and Margaret Stefanoni, a local couple who have sought approvals for two affordable-housing developments in town, told local news organizations that they had been contacted by a Justice Department lawyer.
That lawyer “wants to understand our experience as affordable-housing developers in Darien,” including reactions to their proposals from local officials and residents, Ms. Stefanoni said.
Those interactions have often been fiery. The Stefanonis have been controversial figures since 2005, when they proposed an affordable-housing development for retirees on the site of their home in the Noroton section. The Stefanonis filed the application under the state’s affordable-housing law, known as 8-30g, which allows developers to sidestep local zoning restrictions in communities with a small percentage of affordable housing.
Opposition was fierce. After two years, when the Stefanonis had obtained nearly all of their approvals, the local land trust stepped in to buy the one-acre plot for more than $4 million.
In 2008, the two again accepted a buyout offer for a single-family property they had bought in the Tokeneke section. Mr. Stefanoni said that right after he inquired about a demolition permit at Town Hall, a lawyer for a resident of an abutting property phoned him to ask, “How much do you want for it?”
The couple are currently in litigation with the town over their 8-30g proposal for a 16-unit age-restricted condominium complex at the corner of Leroy and West Avenues. The zoning commission denied the application on the ground that the development would be too dense for the site.
Mr. Stefanoni says that he and his wife relish going up against what he calls the rich “bullies.” “I do not do this for the money,” he said. “I do it for the fight.”
This year the zoning panel approved another 8-30g application, from Garden Homes Management Corporation, which is converting an office building on the Post Road into 35 small rentals, 11 to be classified affordable.
But at the same time town officials are seeking to halt any further such developments. Earlier this year they filed an application with the state Department of Economic and Community Development for a four-year moratorium on 8-30g applications. In order to qualify, Darien must prove that at least 2 percent of its housing stock meets the standard of “affordable,” as calculated through a complex point system.
Darien wants a reprieve to plan for and guide the placement of affordable housing on its own terms, Mr. Campbell said.
“The moratorium to me isn’t what’s important,” he said. “It’s much more important to get housing in the right places.”
The Stefanonis have submitted to the state two lengthy reports disputing Darien’s point calculations. They are adamant that Darien doesn’t qualify for a moratorium, but they aren’t taking any chances that one might go into effect: over the summer, they filed two more 8-30g applications for age-restricted housing projects on two more sites.
Note that first paragraph – the inclusionary zoning rules have never been used, likely because they’ve made dense development completely unprofitable. I’m not going to go so far as some, who accuse the residents of Darien of intentionally sabotaging affordable housing, although it’s an uncomfortable coincidence that lily white wealthy neighborhoods tend to be the ones so adamant about self-defeating affordable housing mandates.
The NY Times doesn’t mention it, but the Darien Times reported last month that the town might scrap its inclusionary zoning regulations altogether as a result. This would be a local, short-term victory, but it looks like IZ still has support in Darien, and it seems easy enough to just move to a lottery system to fill units and keep the program.
The Darien Times also includes this stunningly contradictory lamentation by a local selectman:
“Our moratorium is under fire, there’s no plan for affordable housing, whatever’s happening with Edgerton, and two more 8-30g applications we’ve been hit with. What is the town doing?” Bayne said.
The “moratorium,” you may recall from the NYT excerpt, is a moratorium on 8-30g applications, which are exemptions for developers from local zoning laws if the town in question has a dearth of affordable housing. So, in effect, we have a selectman decrying the lack of affordable housing, all the while describing the town as being “under fire” and having “been hit” by people trying to force them to allow more affordable housing.