With “Immediate Needs” Clearly Documented, Wilton Adopts 5-Year Affordable Housing Plan

Source: Town of Wilton, Zoom recording (May 17, 2022)

At its Tuesday, May 17 meeting, the Board of Selectmen (BOS) approved a plan to increase Wilton’s affordable housing supply.

By design, Wilton’s plan is enrobed in a regional perspective on the affordable housing issue — and while the plan outlines five strategies to advance affordable housing in Wilton, it stops short of quantifying what incremental growth in Wilton’s affordable housing units may be achieved.

Wilton’s Director of Land Use Management and Town Planner Michael Wrinn led the development of the plan, which is due to Connecticut’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM) on June 1 and must be updated every five years, in accordance with state statutes.

The unanimous vote to adopt the plan took place with little fanfare, as the board had been receiving interim updates on the planning process since February.

Irrefutable Need

Among the plan’s many detailed statistics supporting the need for more affordable housing in Wilton, some sobering facts stand out.

At last count, Wilton has 232 affordable housing units, but there are 1,020 households in Wilton that meet the income qualifications for affordable housing and are “cost-burdened” in their current housing.  Said another way, 16% of Wilton households would qualify for affordable housing, but just 3.58% of Wilton’s housing stock meets that need.

Even if Wilton were able to meet the state’s 10% goal for affordable housing units (or 648 units), Wilton’s need for affordable housing would still greatly exceed the inventory of affordable units.

As stated in the plan, “It is clear that Wilton needs a greater variety of housing types and it is important that Wilton takes a proactive approach in addressing the immediate need of affordable housing.”

Regional Approach

Rather than start the planning process from scratch, Wilton opted to leverage the resources of the Western Connecticut Council of Governments (WestCOG), a regional agency representing 18 municipalities, including Wilton.

First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice told GOOD Morning Wilton in an email that the decision to work with WestCOG on Wilton’s affordable housing plan was an obvious choice.

“WestCOG has the required experience, qualifications, knowledge and available staff… and there was no cost to the Town for WestCOG’s work,” Vanderslice wrote. “The alternative was for Wilton to hire a consultant to guide the Board of Selectmen, Planning and Zoning and town personnel and hope that we achieved as good an outcome.”

WestCOG has assembled the foundation of the plan in what it calls the “Regional Affordable Housing Toolbox.” This detailed document (which is essentially complete but is expected to be officially finalized at the next WestCOG meeting) makes the case for why a regional approach is valuable when it comes to the issue of affordable housing.

In addition, the “toolbox” provides:

  • a history of affordable housing in Connecticut
  • market influences
  • The “employment, land use and housing nexus” as a challenge affecting affordability
  • an assessment of housing needs by town
  • zoning incentives and disincentives
  • land availability and infrastructure
  • financing options and cost assessment

While the toolbox can be applied across municipalities, Wilton created its own “annex” to the WestCOG planning document, highlighting Wilton-specific content. Together, the two documents comprise Wilton’s plan.

“The annex plan is our separate piece of the puzzle to meet the requirement for the affordable housing plan,” Wrinn told the selectmen at the May 17 meeting.

Wilton’s Strategies

The plan positions Wilton’s need for affordable housing as part of a broader goal to diversify the types of housing available in Wilton beyond the predominant single-family homes on one- or two-acre lots.

The emphasis will be on “multi-family housing and smaller housing units.” The rationale is that even if new housing units do not qualify as “affordable housing” under the 8-30(g) statute, they may be “more affordable” than Wilton’s traditional housing supply.

According to the plan,

“The Town of Wilton needs greater diversity in its housing stock in order to retain a valuable older population that wishes to downsize, housing to allow young people to stay in the town they grew up in and varied housing types to attract young families and professionals. The main objective will to be increase the types and availability of multi-family housing and smaller housing units (both rental and ownership) built in places and in a manner consistent with the Wilton 2019 Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD).”

The plan goes on to outline five strategies for achieving those goals in Wilton, reflecting the input of the Board of Selectmen, the Planning and Zoning Commission and the Housing Committee.

The strategies state that Wilton will:

    1. “Explore the possibility of smaller-scale, lower cost, and/or multifamily housing, whether as transit-oriented, stand-alone, or mixed-use development, to serve the entire Wilton community, including younger working age or older populations”
    2. Explore changes in the Zoning Regulations to allow an increase of permitted residential density in Wilton Town Center and along Danbury Road”
    3. “Provide ongoing education programs for residents, staff, and members of land use boards about housing and housing issues”
    4. “Consider developing surplus Town-owned properties for small scale affordable housing”
    5. “Explore tools and incentives to retain existing affordable housing units with expiring affordability covenants”

Those strategies are not necessarily new. In many respects, they reiterate strategies outlined in Wilton’s 2018 Plan of Conservation and Development, and are consistent with several efforts already underway in Wilton, such as the consideration of Town-owned property on New St. as a site for affordable housing units.

Wilton may in fact take other steps toward achieving affordable housing goals, but according to Vanderslice, WestCOG advised the Town to limit its stated strategies to five.

Measuring Success

It’s not clear where exactly the affordable housing goalpost is.

Wrinn, along with First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice, Planning and Zoning Commission Chair Rick Tomasetti and former Housing Committee Chair John Kelly, have all publicly commented that reaching the 10% threshold — the tipping point for the 8-30g affordable housing statute, under which developers can bypass local planning and zoning requirements — is unrealistic in Wilton.

While Wilton’s affordable housing plan says that Wilton will “explore” and “consider” ways to maximize affordable housing, the plan does not cite precise targets for the number of affordable housing units over the next five years.

So how will the plan’s success be measured? GOOD Morning Wilton reached out to Wrinn and Vanderslice for comment on that question. (Wrinn is out of the office and unavailable to respond, but Vanderslice answered questions by email.)

Vanderslice said that calculating a goal for an affordable housing increase would be “arbitrary” and the measure of success is how “actively” the Town is working to achieve more affordable housing.

“Realistically, any numerical goals would be as arbitrary as the State’s 10% goal,” Vanderslice wrote. “The key metrics are whether we are actively working towards more affordable and diverse housing and have new units been built as a result.”

While the state statute requires having a plan, it does not require setting specific unit goals. Wrinn told the selectmen that by submitting the WestCOG plan along with the Wilton annex report as written, “We will be fine as far as meeting the statutory requirements for the affordable housing plan.”

Moving Forward

Following the unanimous vote by the BOS to approve it, the plan was filed in the Wilton Town Clerk‘s office, as confirmed by Lori Kaback. The plan is also posted on the Town website.

Vanderslice also told GMW that there will be ongoing regional planning initiatives related to affordable housing through WestCOG, including a consultant’s analysis and evaluation of the various methods to create 8-30(g) affordable housing, providing towns like Wilton with “the critical paths, costs and other components” of the various methods.

Vanderslice also believes that the State may be more willing to consider affordable housing on a regional basis going forward.

“I believe eventually there will be a willingness to evaluate housing on a regional or sub-region basis, and [incentivize] affordable housing near jobs,” Vanderslice wrote in an email. “For example, take Wilton, Weston and Norwalk. The three municipalities have affordable housing rates of 3.58%, 0.22% and 13.67%, respectively. ASML is a key employer for the region and the State, with over 2,000 employees that require housing at all price points — likely including units that likely qualify as affordable, under the 80% average income test. Wouldn’t it make all-around good sense for the State to recognize/[incentivize] ASML employee housing needs solutions developed jointly between Wilton and/or Weston and/or Norwalk?”