Affordable means different things to different people at different times. This holds true when one is talking about housing. There is the general concept of affordable housing that applies when talking about communities or demographic groups. There is the specific reality of affordable housing that is pertinent to individual homeowners and homebuyers.
Planning and zoning commissions need to think about these two perspectives when making decisions about land use. Town leaders need to think about these issues and concerns because municipal services, community resources, tax policies, economic development, and public education affect what is affordable in any town. Conversely, what types of and how many affordable housing are present can affect the tax base, and thus what money is available to fund services in a town.
Think about what affordable housing means to you now. Not easy to answer, is it?
Think about what it may mean for you in the future. Difficult to answer, isn’t it?
Your perspective on it is affected by such things as your experiences with home ownership or not; personal income, savings, and assets; other current and potential financial obligations; cost of living; job security, unemployment, underemployment, or retirement; what your town offers or not regards to municipal services and resources; possible changes in your living and work statuses (such as upcoming retirement, family needs, and personal health/medical care issues); and taxes. You create a list as suits your circumstances at any given time. Affordable is not static – it can change.
Thinking about affordable housing must take into account not just the current state of affairs in your town, but also future development, growth, and demographic changes.
So, how does a planning and zoning commission address this important issue? A colleague of mine on Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission described articulately “Affordable housing” as being with a capital “A” and “affordable housing” as being with a lowercase “a”.
“A” refers to general affordable housing rules and goals created by the state. These items are defined in detail and can be strict with regard to meeting their definitions, and thus the goals set out by the state.
“a” refers to affordable housing that is the reality of what exists at any given time (separate from what the state says) and what should exist based upon a town’s goals as set forth in its Plan of Conservation and Development (and brought to fruition through the use of its zoning and subdivision regulations).
There is a difference between “A” and “a”. The state may say that a town has less than a set goal for “Affordable housing”, but a town may actually have enough “affordable housing” based upon its own determinations or may need more of a certain type of “affordable housing” to meet the needs of its own people.
The state maintains a list of how each of the 169 municipalities is doing with “Affordable housing”. The state uses a threshold of 10% as goal for a municipality’s level of “Affordable housing” in relation to its overall housing stock. As part of the state’s effort to promote “Affordable housing”, as it defines it, land developers who wish to build “Affordable housing” can have their housing plans override various aspects of local zoning regulations if a town’s “Affordable housing” stock is <10% of the goal. For some towns, this could be an issue since they may have developable land that is economically profitable for building “Affordable housing”. For other towns, such development would not be an issue since local factors may make “Affordable housing” non-viable projects for developers.
The state’s definition of “Affordable housing” can make it difficult for some towns to meet the state’s goal. State Statute lists the following about “Affordable housing”:
- Assisted housing (lengthy definition);
- Financed by Connecticut Housing Finance Authority (CHFA) mortgages; or
- Subject to deeds containing covenants or restrictions which require that housing, including mobile homes, be sold or rented at, or below, prices which will preserve the units as housing for individuals or families who pay thirty per cent or less of income, where such income is less than or equal to eighty per cent of the median income.
The state uses the following formula to determine if the 10% goal has been met by your town: The number of the above bulleted items a town has divided by the total estimated dwelling units in a town.
If a town cannot meet the state’s goal for “Affordable housing”, then it does not mean that it should not try to meet its own goals of “affordable housing”. A planning and zoning commission looks at the local situation. It reviews available U.S. Census and state demographic data on a wide set of factors, including but not limited to income, age, sex, employment status, family size, family characteristics, house size, home and land prices, inflation, taxes, and costs of living. It estimates how the town may grow in the future and how the various demographic data sets may change over time. It looks at the current zoning and subdivision regulations to see what is and what is not working to keep and increase “affordable housing”. It maps the available buildable land in the community. It also maps the open spaces needed to maintain the character of the town and to preserve the natural resources (such as water) needed to maintain homes and businesses. It looks into the municipal infrastructure that is needed. It looks into how the tax base may be affected by changes in “affordable housing” availability or lack thereof, and how tax and economic development policies can encourage or limit the development of ‘affordable housing”.
Predicting the future is not easy. Best estimates are used to create general polices that steer things toward defined goals. Along the way, polices and regulations are changed, as needed, to keep the direction moving forward or to shift direction as a community may determine at any given time.
Although the state may legislate “Affordable housing”, it is ultimately up to each municipality, using its own best local knowledge, collective decision making, and rules to formulate its own plans for “affordable housing”. It is indeed a challenge, but an exciting and meaningful challenge worth always undertaking because it has direct impacts upon us all.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Gordon is Chairman of Woodstock’s Planning and Zoning Commission. This article neither reflects any official statement of nor any specific work being done by the Commission. Check out www.JeffreyGordon.com