New Haven housing task force wants big changes

NEW HAVEN — The Room for All report is attracting support as the basis for many elements that, if changed, could boost the number of affordable housing options in the city and more consistent landlord accountability.

The Affordable Housing Task Force is set to release its report in a meeting Jan. 9, with a public hearing and final vote Jan. 15.

The task force was assembled in response to the loss of single room occupancy, or SRO, units at the Duncan Hotel, but it has gone far beyond that to embrace a more comprehensive look at housing needs in the city and solutions to the struggle for decent housing for all residents.

It was written my several members of the Room for All Coalition, which include CT Bail Fund’s Housing Not Jails, Youth Continuum, Y2Y , New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Mothers and Others for Justice and Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven.

Liam Brennan compiled and edited what was a group effort of coalition members.

It makes recommendations on land use changes, as well as incentives to developers to include rents for low-income tenants in a mix of apartments, more sophisticated tracking of large landlords and a better system of keeping the city’s housing stock in good repair.

On land use, the recommendation is to adopt inclusionary zoning, allow for the creation of accessory dwelling units and allow construction of housing on abandoned lots that are now owned by the city.

It suggests that the city require all new buildings with 10 units or more set aside 10 to 20 percent of the rents at below market rates.

However, it also recognizes that the economics of building apartments is complicated.

To that end, it suggests that the city require half of the below market rate units be sold to persons earning between 60 and 80 percent of the area median income, or AMI. It further suggests the use of tax abatement to require landlords to rent the remaining affordable apartments to tenants who only earn 25 to 60 percent of AMI.

Currently, the city negotiates with developers on building some affordable units. The report suggests setting a standard inclusionary zoning rule for large developments to make this predictable.

The report agrees with architecture student Jonathan Hopkins that the zoning code allow for construction of accessory dwelling units to expand housing options. It could use tax and fee abatement and state subsidies to ensure affordability or transfer the project-based Section 8 funding from Church Street South to some of these units.

Another major change would be to ease the zoning rules on minimum lot area requirements. It is now illegal to build on any lot less than 5,400 square feet, which is about 0.12 acres of land.

Liam Brennan, who is with the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, made a presentation at the Downtown Wooster Square Community Management Team meeting in which he pointed out housing built on smaller lots before the 5,200 square feet rule went into effect.

NHLAA found a single-family house on 0.03 acres on Lincoln Street; a three-family home on 0.08 acres on Lombard Street; a four-family home on 0.08 acres on Pleasant Street and a three-family home on 0.06 acres on Clark Street, among others.

It said it found an estimated 50 city-owned lots in residential areas that could support housing if the lot size were lowered. A sampling of them were on Lilac, Newhall, Button, Bassett, Lloyd and Richard streets. It said currently, Beulah Land Development Corp. is having difficulty building two homes, one at 232 Munson St. and one at 245 Munson St.

He said the zoning rules and the city’s policy that Beulah receive zoning relief before the city sells the corporation the property has delayed the project and increased the cost.

“The unnecessary hurdles that the city’s zoning code places on creating new housing on lots that easily support housing in other locations discourages development — and in particular, discourages the type of development that could most benefit lower-income residents,” the report says.

It states that New Haven could use covenants or land banking to make certain that the home is rented at affordable rates. Building on these lots not only boost housing, but puts them on the tax rolls.

Elm City Communities, which is the city’s housing authority, said 41 percent of city residents are “rent-burdened,” that is they pay more than 30 percent of their income on housing. The Partnership for Strong Communities puts the number of residents who are rent-burdened at 57 percent.

The report also addresses what it calls Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing, that is, privately owned rentals that are paid by low- and moderate-income renters. The city can’t keep them moderately priced if the market allows higher rents, but it should have reforms that ensure that these units meet a livability standard.

“It is time to bring sunlight and publicity to the activity of city landlords who are degrading New Haven’s housing infrastructure and failing their tenants,” the report recommends.

The recommendation is to put complaints about a landlord on the city’s website, as well as how long it took to fix them. New York City would be a model as it publicizes a landlord watch list, cataloging the 100 worst landlords. It lists open housing code violations, building code violations and tax lien information. It recommends New Haven add information on high eviction rates.

The increasing number of landlords who create separate limited liability corporations for their properties obscures their identity and can hurt anti-blight efforts. The report points again to New York and how it has untangled these “shell companies.”

“Overall, New York City has a well-developed ecosystem to track and model landlord networks, quality and displacement activities. … If the city of New Haven were to adopt similar measures, the community could play a large role in increasing accountability in the rental market,” the report states.

The NHLAA is working to identify LLCs and which landlords are responsible for the most evictions.

Misspellings and lack of standardized language made it difficult to do this, but eventually they identified 3,900 unique landlords. Those that evicted the most tenants were banks and other lending institutions, while the Housing Authority of New Haven had 301 evictions from 2013-16 and Carabetta Management had 209, the reports says.

It said the city needs a centralized IT system where the Livable City Initiative can keep track of landlord compliance and route complaints to the right agency.

It said New Haven should make expanded use of SeeClickFix, an online portal for reporting quality of life issues, to post rental housing issues and to allow tenants to note their problems. It said use of the Fair Rent Commission should also be made clear to the public.

A major reform recommended by the report is to have the city digitize its records and create a system where properties can be cross-referenced with unique identifiers, such as the state’s Concord business number. While this affects all city agencies, LCI and the Health Department are especially important as they are charged with enforcement.

It recommends that the city increase penalties for landlords with blighted properties. It sites the Chicago Troubled Buildings Initiative, which focuses on code enforcement and receivership to get blight taken care of. It has foreclosed on some properties, but usually the threat of foreclosure is enough.

On the flip side, the report recommends rewarding landlords that provide quality service by highlighting their work. Also, to keep rental property maintained, it said New Haven should work with community development financial institutions to develop low interest and forgivable loans. It recommends tax incentives or abatement to “mom-and-pop” landlords to encourage them to undertake regular maintenance.

Alder Abby Roth, D-7, also wants a discussion of the city’s Tax Assessment Deferral Program to determine whether it is too generous or it should be connected with inclusionary zoning where a percentage of the savings to developers is shifted to a fund for affordable housing if they did not include a certain level of affordable housing in their plans.

mary.oleary@hearstmediact.coml 203-641-2577.

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