East Lyme has a plan for affordable housing
East Lyme – A new planning document in town positions affordable housing as a way for the “picturesque coastal community” to maintain prosperity, not a way to diminish it.
The 23-page East Lyme Affordable Housing Plan, written by planning and design consultant Donald Poland of the consulting firm Goman + York, was approved last week by the Planning Commission.
“Becoming and remaining a vibrant and prosperous community does not occur by happenstance,” Poland wrote. “It requires hard work, dedication, constancy of purpose, and good governance. It also requires the community to provide and maintain a quality housing stock that is affordable.”
Without affordable housing, Poland said it becomes difficult to find employees who work for modest wages to keep the tourism industry afloat.
“If the community cannot attract and retain a qualified workforce to provide basic needs and satisfy wants, then desirability and demand suffer, and prosperity wanes,” he wrote.
The plan recommends changes to zoning regulations along with incentives that make it more profitable for developers to build affordable houses and apartments. The goal, bolstered by state mandates, is to set aside 10% of the town’s housing stock as affordable to lower-income earners. Currently, a family of four making less than $90,080 in East Lyme would qualify.
The plan was a belated response to a state directive requiring municipalities to adopt an affordable housing plan by June 1 and update it every five years. Director of Planning Gary Goeschel on Friday said the COVID-19 pandemic got in the way of a process that should have started a year before the deadline but instead started in February.
The consulting firm was hired with $15,000 in grant funds from the state Department of Housing to conduct a housing study and identify potential strategies the town could use to promote affordable housing.
A presentation of the plan by Poland at a November public hearing yielded a single comment, which was supportive.
While the commission rejected one recommended incentive that called for a reduction or waiver of permitting fees for affordable housing developments, they approved the rest of the language without major changes.
It was a departure from the way a similar plan by Poland was received in Stonington, where the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission in May significantly scaled back the draft plan, from 33 pages to five, after recommendations prompted criticism from residents at a public hearing. They characterized the incentives as handouts for developers and said the suggested changes to regulations diminished local control.
Some significant recommendations in East Lyme’s plan include requiring all market-rate projects with more than 10 units to set aside around 10% of the development as affordable, or else pay into a Housing Trust Fund established by the town to promote housing for people in the lowest income brackets maxing out at $56,300 for a family of four. Another recommendation calls for property tax breaks for affordable housing developers.
Housing is considered affordable when the people living there don't spend more than 30% of their income on housing related expenses like mortgage or rent, utilities and taxes.
State zoning statutes designed to promote fair and diverse housing options encourage towns to make sure 10% of their housing stock is affordable to those who make less than 80% of the area’s median family income as determined by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. In all of New London County except Colchester and Lebanon, where it is higher, the area median income for a family of four is $102,700.
East Lyme currently has 520 units that meet the state definition of affordable. State calculations, which are still based on 2010 US Census data, put the percentage of total housing stock at 6.15%.
The report said a focus on affordable housing is needed because communities are becoming more segregated by both income and race.
“The poor, working, and even some middle-income families are priced out of prosperous communities that provide opportunities for upward mobility,” Poland wrote. “Most concerning, minority populations are disproportionately excluded from prosperous communities, economic opportunities, and improved quality of life.”
Data in a 2021 report from the Urban Institute shows 69% of Black households and 70% of Latino households rent their homes in New London County, compared to 27% of white households. That’s among the largest gaps in the state, according to the think tank.
Poland in the plan acknowledged resistance from people with fears affordable housing developments will reduce property values and put a burden on public services, such as the school system. But he said research has shown construction of apartment complexes did not drive down the property values of nearby single-family homes in several studies, and that demographic shifts in the aging community have resulted in a 21% decline in school enrollments over the past decade and a half.
The plan includes 10 recommendations for changes to zoning regulations that run the gamut from more explanation of terms like “affordable housing” and “character” to easing restrictions that currently make it difficult for developers to turn a profit on multifamily developments.
One recommendation is to allow accessory apartments – otherwise known as in-law suites – as “a simple, low-cost, and low-risk means” to make it more affordable for people to live in town. The small residential units — such as garage apartments or "in-law suites" — can be attached to or detached from a house.
The Zoning Commission in October 2021 opted out of a state law that would have allowed accessory units without a public hearing or special permit. Commission members, despite hearing an overall positive response from the public about loosening the regulations, said the state law was too broad and they wanted more local control.
Other recommendations involved decreasing required lot sizes and parking requirements for multifamily construction as well as increasing the number of stories allowed.
Goeschel, the planning director, said the detailed report demonstrates the need for affordable housing.
“And no one’s arguing that there isn’t one,” he said, adding that the question is how to provide needed housing at a rate the town can absorb without getting overwhelmed by expenses related to services like education, police protection and emergency medical services.
“Those are costs to the community this plan doesn’t really evaluate,” he said.
He said putting the plan into action requires the Zoning Commission to look into incorporating the recommendations into its regulations.
On the planning side, he reiterated there’s a state mandate for the document to be updated every five years.
“I’m thinking maybe the next go round, that’s something we look at. What does it cost in services to the town as a result of affordable housing?”