SRO Moratorium, Westville Zone Advance

Markeshia Ricks PhotoA committee of alders voted to try to preserve SROs in New Haven — while seeking to ensure that a proposed new zoning plan for Westville Village does not undercut that goal. 

That happened during deliberations at a City Hall meeting on two separate matters Tuesday night before the Board of Alders Legislation Committee.

The first matter was a proposal to declare a six to nine-month moratorium on converting single room occupancy (SRO) facilities into market-rate housing or lodging. The proposal, in an amended form that no longer can be construed to affect the renovation of the Duncan Hotel, passed the committee Tuesday night by a unanimous vote.

That vote came after the last continued public hearing on the matter was closed. Alders had continued the hearing on the matter after concerns were raised that the public had not had enough time to review an evolving version of the proposed moratorium. Only two people testified in Tuesday’s hearing: Chapel Street Special Service’s District Business Manager Brian McGrath and Whalley Avenue Special Services District Commissioner Allen McCollum.

Both men urged the committee to turn down the moratorium altogether—amended or not.

McGrath said the moratorium would do nothing to save SROs or facilitate the development of new ones.

“There’s a better way to do what you said you’re going to do,” he said.

The second matter concerned a proposed new zoning plan for commercial Westville Village that would allow more density and a greater mix of uses.The plan would create a new special zoning district for Westville Village. Currently zoned General Business or BA, the village would have its own Village Center Mixed Use designation, or BA-2, zoning district.

Lizzy Donius of the Westville Village Reinassance Association and students in the Yale Law School Community and Economic Development Clinic, who helped draft the recommendations for a new zone, testified in favor of the change. So did Westville neighbors Kate Bradley and Luke Hanscom of Lotta Studios, which is in the heart of the village at the corner of Whalley Avenue and Blake Street.

The committee passed that proposal unanimously as well but left the door open to address concerns about whether the zone should allow SROs conditionally, or maintain the status quo that disallows them throughout the city. The way the new zoning for the village is written it would continue the status quo. 

Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg, who serves on a newly appointed affordable housing task force, asked what the danger would be in allowing rooming and boarding houses by special permit.

Kendyl Clausen, a student with the law clinic, said the biggest danger would be in skewing the type of housing that might actually get developed. She said the Westville market would be attractive to developers who want to build micro units aimed at young professionals.

“Westville would be a very good market for those types of units based on its proximity to the schools, based on the type of community that already lives there,” she said. “You want to be intentional about the type of affordable housing and the way we’re addressing affordable housing rather than this all-encompassing solution.”

The students suggested that if alders want to allow SROs by special permit or special exception. the process should be part of a model plan with guidelines that are not just based on “what the community feels like is OK at the time.”

“And we felt like Westville isn’t the right community to be deciding what should be the model for all of New Haven,” Clausen said. “We thought the [affordable housing] task force should be responsible for addressing those guidelines and that model so that we’re not setting a precedent the rest of the city has to live by.”

East Rock Alder Charles Decker made a pitch for allowing certain types of uses such as a theater with more than 250 people, or a hotel, to be done by special exception instead of by special permit. The former has to go before the City Plan Commission as well as the Board of Zoning Appeals, which he served on before becoming an alder. The latter goes before only the City Plan Commission.

He noted that the BZA already hears testimony on such “high impact” uses like restaurants that serve alcohol where members of the community get to weigh in on whether they think it is an appropriate use.

“I think that’s a great function of the BZA,” he said noting that a theater or a hotel would be a similarly high impact use where community members should be able to have their say.

“Those are sort of high impact developments…and I think of BZA being a potentially better venue for having the community have a say.”

Clausen said the rationale behind what to allow by special exception or special permit was based on the City Plan staff recommendation to streamline such matters for developers so that those already going before the City Plan Commission don’t also have to also go before the BZA. She noted that the types of development that Decker cited already have to go before City Plan. 

Westville Alder Adam Marchand, who also serves on the City Plan Commission, urged his colleagues to support the Westville zoning plan, as he did the amended SRO plan. He suggested that their concerns be raised in amendments could always be offered on the floor when the full board meets to take up the matter.

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posted by: 1644 on May 9, 2018  1:46pm

I don’t understand the affection for “SRO"s, which are, at best, hotel rooms designed for short-term occupancy but used long-term.  Wouldn’t the Alders better serve the needs of low-income single persons by encouraging micro-apartments, which would include a kitchenette as well as water closet?

posted by: Esbey on May 9, 2018  5:43pm

The SRO thing is so weird. It is still illegal to build SROs (because they are so very bad) and but now also illegal to demolish them (because they are so very good).

In general, though, I am in favor of SROs, micro-apartments and rooming houses in areas zoned for apartments. I am in favor of accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in otherwise single-family zones. Allow them all through East Rock, Prospect Hill and Westville. For decades, many St. Ronan street mansions had third floor apartment units and/or apartments over back yard garages. It was often not strictly legal, but it was and it is a good thing. Let’s legalize it.

Let people live in the type of housing that they want to live in, don’t make them spend all of their income on large housing units that they don’t want. Allowing smaller, denser housing units is *the most* effective way to combat climate change. Perhaps Alder Greenberg is moving in a progressive direction on this issue.   

Housing for Humans!

posted by: Ryn111 on May 9, 2018  8:32pm

The SRO moratorium was specifically tied to our city’s union leadership and a labor agreement with new owners of the Duncan Hotel.

The front of “affordable housing downtown” is laughable. You can walk six blocks from The Duncan and find affordable housing and other SROs.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on May 9, 2018  10:03pm

1644, I think that SROs and micro-apartments serve separate, albeit overlapping, markets. Micro-apartments are usually unsubsidized and house working adults. SROs often house people who are not working. As Esbey notes, there’s no reason why the city can’t encourage both, as well as other forms of alternative housing.

posted by: 1644 on May 10, 2018  7:18am

Kevin:  SRO’s are usually unsubsidized, as well, with the exception of supported housing, half-way-houses and the like.  To me the danger of SRO’s is that residents treat them like apartments,  using hot-plates, refrigerators, and other appliances that may overload general purpose outlets, causing arcing and fire hazards, as well as attracting rodents.  These issues were a problem with every dormitory I stayed in when in school,  and, I presume, one reason many of today’s dormitories have kitchenettes in the rooms.  If New Haven wants safe, low-cost housing for single people,  micro apartments are a good idea.