Valerie Seiling Jacobs read Bart Shuldman’s letter advocating a “yes” vote on the Baron’s South senior housing text amendment. She takes the opposite view:
In 2011, after careful deliberation, P&Z adopted regulations to allow the construction of senior housing on Baron’s South and twelve other town-owned sites so long as 60% of the units meet the state test for “affordable.” Now, P&Z is being pressured to loosen those regulations, including reducing the required percentage of affordable units from 60% to 20%. Indeed, some people are claiming that without these changes, Westport will never get senior housing.
This is simply not true and P&Z should not give in to this pressure. First, these regulations pertain only to town property. Developers will still be free to construct senior housing on privately owned property.
Second, reducing that percentage runs afoul of the very rationale that P&Z originally used to justify the use of town-owned land for this purpose. As P&Z previously recognized, if the Town is going to donate an asset for this purpose—as opposed to putting the asset to its highest and best use, which P&Z recognized was NOT senior housing—then the town still needed to receive something valuable in return.
Under the existing regulations, that value consists of: (1) senior housing for a tenant population that is predominantly needy and which might not otherwise have housing options; and (2) credits toward a moratorium against some of the more onerous provisions of §8-30g, a state statute that applies to towns (like Westport) that fail to meet a threshold level of affordable housing.
The proponents of this amendment have tried to justify this switch from 60% to 20% on the ground that an additional 20% of the units will be restricted to “moderate-income” tenants.
But that argument is misleading. If adopted, this Amendment will likely result in a tenant population that is overwhelmingly well-to-do.
The income test for those so-called “moderate” units is so high (just under $113,000 for a one-bedroom) that wealthy people will still qualify. A person could have $4.5 million in the bank and be collecting maximum Social Security and still meet the income test. Why should the town donate a valuable asset for the benefit of people with those kinds of means—folks who can afford to live anywhere? It’s one thing for Westport to subsidize a project for the genuinely needy, but a whole other thing to subsidize this population.
Moreover, these so-called moderate-income units will not satisfy the requirements of §8-30g, which means that they won’t gain the town any points when it comes to the moratorium. Basically, the town is getting very little in return for giving up a valuable asset (not to mention open space).
To make matters worse, this amendment proposes to exclude all of the units, including the market-rate units, from the existing town-wide cap on multi-family units. (Currently, no more than 10% of Town’s housing units can be part of multi-family projects.)
But there is no principled reason to allow that kind of increased density. With thirteen potential sites in play, we could easily find our fire, police, ambulance, and other town services seriously overtaxed.
This proposed amendment is being driven solely by a developer’s financial demands—and those demands cannot be reconciled with the core rationale of P&Z’s previous decision, nor can they be reconciled with our existing zoning regulations or the Town Plan of Conservation and Development, which place a premium on open space.
I recognize that P&Z is in a difficult spot. Some seniors are truly desperate for this kind of housing. And I understand that some people are saying that the 60% requirement is not workable.
They may be right—but the answer is not to roll over and settle for nothing more than what is already required. Developers are already required to dedicate 20% of any multi-family project to affordable housing (or to make a payment in lieu).
And, by the way, the promise that we will reap the benefit of property taxes is also only what taxpayers are already due. Of course these developers should pay real estate taxes—after all, they are not paying rent.
The answer is to go back to the drawing board to see what other types of concessions the town can negotiate in exchange for providing this kind of subsidy.
Let’s hope that P&Z has the courage to stand up for all of Westport and to do what is right for everyone. Settling for 20% is simply not good enough.