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Norwich to hold public hearing Monday on Affordable Housing Plan

Norwich — With more than 19% of the city’s housing stock designated as affordable, Norwich does not need to worry about a potential developer invoking a state law to override local zoning regulations and propose a large housing project.

The state law allowing possible zoning overrides applies to cities and towns with less than 10% of their housing defined as affordable.

But that doesn’t mean Norwich does not have problems with housing affordability, said Kathryn Crees, community development supervisor, who led the effort to write the city’s state-mandated Affordable Housing Plan. The 17-page plan provides data on the city’s current housing stock and resident income levels and lists strategies for increasing and improving affordable housing.

The plan is posted under the “News” label adjacent to the calendar on the city website's homepage, www.norwichct.org. The City Council will hold a public hearing on the plan at the start of its 7:30 p.m. meeting Monday at City Hall.

Housing is considered affordable if a household pays no more than 30% of its income toward housing costs, including rent or mortgage, property tax and utilities. U.S. Census data showed that as many as 49% of Norwich households are "cost-burdened," paying more than 30% of their income for housing costs, including 23% of homeowners who do not have a mortgage, Crees said.

Crees said as city officials were researching data for the plan, they quickly realized that while the city has a high percentage of affordable housing, affordability of housing by city residents must be addressed.

Federal COVID-19 relief grants have helped many families with rental and utility assistance, but when that money is gone, more people will struggle to pay for housing.

“It’s the affordability,” Crees said. “We just have too many people who are teetering on the edge. That’s the conversation we need to have.”

The Affordable Housing Plan draws on the 2013 Plan of Conservation and Development for guidance on improving city housing, steering multifamily housing to areas with access to public transportation, encouraging rehabilitation of existing, especially historical, buildings, and reserving the more rural areas of the city for single-family homes. The plan also encourages use of various financing resources for affordable housing, such as Connecticut Housing and Finance Authority, or CHFA, and historic tax credits to renovate old buildings.

Since that 2013 plan was published, the city has approved more than 300 new apartments, a mixture of market-rate and designated affordable units in the historical Ponemah Mill in Taftville. Last year, the city formed a partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Eastern Connecticut to use $1.2 million in American Rescue Plan grant money to build new single-family homes in Greeneville and to rehabilitate several rundown houses the city acquires through property foreclosures.

Overall, 19.3% of the city’s total 19,120 housing units count as affordable housing as defined in state statute. Of the 3,608 affordable units listed on state Department of Housing list, 191 have single-family CHFA/U.S. Department of Agriculture mortgages; 2,296 are government-assisted units and 796 receive tenant rental assistance.

The age of city housing is another factor in the effort to improve affordable housing, the plan states, with 38% of housing units in Norwich built before 1929, and 29% built between 1929 and 1969. The Community Development office allocates about $250,000 per year of the city’s federal Community Development Block Grant for no-interest property rehabilitation loans. Loan repayments from previous projects add about another $100,000 to the pool, Crees said.

The office separately has more than $1 million remaining in a federal lead paint abatement grant, also offered to homeowners as a no-interest loan.

What the city lacks is applications from property owners to use the money.

Crees said she is frustrated that despite aggressive marketing efforts, few applications have been submitted, especially for the lead paint abatement grants. Office staff have reached out to local churches, promoted the program on English and Spanish-speaking radio programs, sent news items out in city utility bills and set up tables outside local shopping centers — including at the Norwich Walmart this weekend.

She speculated that part of the problem could be that nearly 45% of housing units are not owner-occupied. Many owners are absentee landlords living outside the region.

Crees stressed the generous terms of the programs: Rehabilitation loans are forgivable after 10 years under certain terms, and lead paint abatement loans after five years. Both programs are no-interest loans.

“You can’t do better than that,” she said. “Yet people are not coming in and taking advantage of it.”

c.bessette@theday.com

By the numbers

The City Council will hold a public hearing at 7:30 p.m. Monday at City Hall on Norwich's new Affordable Housing Plan.

Of the city's 19,120 total housing units:

• 55% are owner occupied
• 47% are multifamily
• 38% were built before 1929
• 29% were built between 1929 and 1969
• 19.3% are affordable housing under state definitions
• 49% of families pay more than 30% of their income toward housing costs

Source: Norwich Affordable Housing Plan, U.S. Census data.

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