Alders OK SRO Halt, W’ville Zone Change

Markeshia Ricks PhotoWere they voting to save SROs? Or preventing them from being built?

Downtown Alder Abby Roth asked colleagues that question during debates over two bills that became law Monday night.

In a 23 to 4 vote, the Board of Alders approved a zoning ordinance text amendment that will put a six to nine-month moratorium on converting single room occupancy (SRO) facilities into market-rate housing or lodging. The goal: Preserve that kind of affordable housing.

Then in a separate unanimous vote, alders turned approved a the creation of a new zone for commercial Westville Village that allows more density and a greater mix of uses. But that greater mix does not include any possibility of adding more SROs.

All of that happened during the board’s regular bimonthly meeting at City Hall, which saw a small group of alders — Downtown Alder Abby Roth, East Rock Alder Anna Festa, Newhallville/Prospect Hill Alders Kim Edwards and Steve Winter — break away from the whole to vote against the moratorium.

Roth argued that the moratorium was unnecessary because no SROs are currently threatened, would skew the work of a new affordable housing task force, and is generally bad for business. The quest to establish a moratorium on SROs and establish a task force grew out of a UNITE HERE fight to force the new owners of the Duncan Hotel, a partial SRO becoming an upscale establishment, to run a union operation. After months of public hearings, lawyers for the Board of Alders and the owners of the Duncan were able to strike a deal that ensured that any moratorium enacted would have no impact on that project.

Roth pointed out that none of the city’s remaining SROs — which includes hotels — are in any danger of converting in the next six to nine months. She also noted that of the remaining SROs, particularly the downtown YMCA has given assurances that it has no plans to change its housing model.

“You might ask why does it matter if we enact this if it doesn’t harm anyone,” she said. “I strongly believe a legislative body should not enact ordinances that have no purpose as a general matter. Moreover, it has been made very clear to me that it sends a very bad signal to investors that New Haven is a difficult place to do business because we enact arbitrary rules and hurdles. Amid complaints that we already have patchwork zoning rules, it is harmful to add to that patchwork. and enact this rule, when we should be encouraging investment.”

Roth said debate over the moratorium resulted in a task force that will hold its first meeting this coming Wednesday. Meanwhile, she argued, the moratorium skews the work of finding solutions to focusing on SROs and not the plethora of ideas needed to the affordable housing crisis in the city.

“The task force has a critically important mission in establishing a range of solutions to create more affordable housing to meet the diverse needs of our community,” she said. “I encourage the task force to focus on all solutions .. .including changing zoning laws to have SROs in more parts of the city.”

Wooster Square Alder Aaron Greenberg, who both sits on the affordable housing task force and has pushed the SRO proposal, argues that the moratorium provides a needed “time out” from potential development that hastens gentrification and gives the city a chance to devise longer-term strategy.

He said Monday night that while he and Roth respectfully disagreed on the need for the moratorium, they do agree on the need to address affordable housing and the work ahead for the task force.

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Also Monday night, alders approved the long-awaited new special zoning district for Westville Village.

Currently zoned General Business or BA, the village will now have its own Village Center Mixed Use designation, or BA-2, zoning district. The new zone which will allow more density won’t allow SROs — unless alders change that — but it will allow taller buildings. And any developer seeking a special exception to build a hotel, assembly hall or theater will make the ask in front of the Board of Zoning Appeals instead of the City Plan Commission.

East Rock Alder Charles Decker amended the use table for the zone to make sure such developments are done by special exception instead of the previously proposed special permit. Decker, a BZA member, said that his amendment didn’t change the intent of the legislation but changed the venue for public hearings.

“By either process, those uses would require a public hearing in front of a board of zoning experts,” he said. “The only difference is which board of zoning experts hears the item. I served on the Board of Zoning Appeals for several years. In my experience the BZA is the more suitable venue for the public to give testimony on how high impact developments like these affect their neighborhoods.”

Westville Alder Adam Marchand said the process for researching and developing the new zoning district is what the city and its neighborhoods would want — “thorough and conclusive.”

“The fruit of these labors [the work of Yale Law clinic students and the Westville Renaissance Alliance] is a new zoning district BA 2 which matches up well with the local community’s desire for a denser pattern of development in the cultural and commercial area along Whalley Avenue,” he said. “It was a good process with good results, resulting in a new zone that other district may want to consider.”

Roth applauded the process but she voted in favor of the zone change with reservation.

“I find it strangely inconsistent that as part of this there is a prohibited use for rooming and boarding houses — in other words single room occupancies. when we just had a discussion about the need for more affordable housing in the city and how critical it is,” she said. “Not that it should be accepted as of right but that there isn’t any possibility through a special exception for anyone to even appeal it. I do find that odd to have these items one after another. ”

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posted by: Noteworthy on June 5, 2018  8:43am

The irony of this SRO moratorium to “preserve” affordable housing cannot be avoided - when this same body just voted in one of the largest tax increases in New Haven history - which will make the city as a whole, less affordable in just three weeks when it takes effect.

posted by: 1644 on June 5, 2018  8:57am

Noteworthy:  A large number of New Haven’s residents are insulated from the tax increase through programs like Section 8 and the affordable housing set-aside, thus an ever smaller group of property owners is left to carry the burden.  The great danger is that private owners will be unable to raise rents to cover increased expenses, will skimp on maintenance, and ultimately walk away from their properties.  Yes, there is demand for high-end rental housing close to Yale, as with the Union and 900 Chapel.  Further from Yale, the Ninth Square is declining, with many vacant storefronts and apartments.  As for older housing stock, it is evident that New Haven wants its housing to be maintained and renovated in a totally lead-free status,  one that simply cannot be reached at rents of $900-$1200 for a three bedroom apartment.  Meanwhile, New Haven continues to provide police officers to drive its mayor, and keeps the old Strong School off the tax rolls.

posted by: TheMadcap on June 5, 2018  9:14am

To Noteworthy’s point about affordability, it would appear that the 4 alders who voted against the SRO bill were also the ones who voted against the budget and tax hike

posted by: robn on June 5, 2018  9:26am

Greenberg, Decker and Marchand work for their union, not New Haven. They should be voted out.

Even if noone is considering changing a property from SRO, is this law in any way legal. It seems to be an arbitrary restriction on private property holders.

posted by: HewNaven on June 5, 2018  9:31am

Roth argued that the moratorium was unnecessary because no SROs are currently threatened

What about the YMCA building on Howe/Chapel?? If that is considered an SRO, it would be prime real estate for a redeveloper. Maybe more boutique hotel units?

posted by: Noteworthy on June 5, 2018  9:49am

YMCA - maybe one should ask if the old YMCA is paying its PILOT - and better, when was its PILOT payment last updated and negotiated?

posted by: robn on June 5, 2018  9:49am

This seems to be an odd inversion of classic spot zoning; in this case, one entity in a neighborhood is punished with more limitations than its neighbors. Sounds illegal to me.

posted by: wendy1 on June 5, 2018  11:33am

You are right, the WTF tax knocked the sanity ball right out of the park.  Soon they’ll be charging the homeless for bench space.  Today I spent between 8 and 9 with my bullhorn in front of “cityhell”.  The usual armoured truck showed up by 9:30.  Five alders voted against the tax hike not 4 according to this paper.  Tomorrow, June 6, haha, is a city meeting about affordable housing also according to the NHI.  I hope you sent a reporter.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 5, 2018  11:41am

Hew Naven,

The old YMCA building on Howe already went through a 20+ Million Dollar Renovation.
West Village Apartments (as it is called) provides affordable, below market rate apartments for those in need who qualify and get on the waiting list…

As a neighbor, I think they are an asset to the community.

posted by: HewNaven on June 5, 2018  12:11pm

Bill Saunders,

I agree that YMCA is it’s current form is an asset. I believe you, a long-time neighbor, when you say they won’t move. I don’t believe a politician. In fact, I’m pretty sure that people like Alder Roth probably know which properties developers are looking at long before the rest of us, just due to the basic mechanics of power.

I still want to know the following: Even if a building like the YMCA is not up for grabs, what are some other SROs that might be redeveloped? Why is BoA so concerned about this?.. I asked for a list of current SROs in a previous article, but no one could come up with one. So what is the need for a moratorium?

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on June 5, 2018  2:06pm

1644, a couple of quibbles. If a landlord in the Section 8 program is charging less than “fair market rent” as defined by the program, she or he will be able to increase the rent to partially or entirely offset the tax increase. As you probably know, FMR is based on regional rents and is often higher than actual market rents in poor neighborhoods. Also, Ninth Square certainly has a fair number of vacant storefronts. But I don’t know that it has a higher than average housing vacancy rate. Much of the housing there is subsidized.

Robn, courts in CT and elsewhere have upheld the constitutionality of short-term moratoria to allow a municipality to update its zoning ordinance. See Arnold Bernard & Co. v. Planning and Zoning Comm’n. 194 Conn. 152 (1984). In this case, the CT Supreme Court held that Westport had the authority to establish a nine-month zoning moratorium.

posted by: Esbey on June 5, 2018  10:48pm

Alder Roth did an excellent job here.

The Alders from United-Here continue to insist that (a) SROs are so important that their preservation is a literal emergency and (b) that SROs are so horrible that zoning must ban their construction throughout the city.

The resolution to this paradox is that these alders are not concerned about SROs at all. They want to prevent another Hotel Duncan problem. The problem being that the Duncan already had the permission to run a hotel/boarding house and so the union alders could not hold up the hotel owners on behalf of their Unite-Here bosses.

This is a clear unethical conflict of interest.

I hope everyone enjoys their Unite Here tax increase. These alders do, every time they cash their paychecks.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 5, 2018  11:47pm

Alder Roth continues to be an impressive voice.
We need more like her in ‘the chamber’........

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on June 6, 2018  7:26am

Abby Roth is correct that the BOA’s actions are inconsistent. Rooming and boarding houses, including SROs, are allowed “as of right” in BA and BD zones (see the Use Table in Article V of the zoning ordinance). The former are sprinkled across the city, the latter constitutes much of downtown. As the article notes, Westville Village was previously zoned BA. An SRO could have been developed there without getting a variance; with the rezoning a variance is now required.

Hew Naven, West Village consists of studios and one-bedroom apartments and is thus not an SRO.

I believe that SROs are part of the answer to New Haven’s shortage of affordable housing. But there are additional options, including permitting accessory dwelling units, such as in-law apartments in single-family zones, as Jonathan Hopkins has suggested. The city also needs to review the zoning ordinance to see if there are provisions that unnecessarily increase the cost of housing. And the city should promote energy efficiency measures that reduce the operating costs of new and existing housing.

posted by: newhavenishome on June 6, 2018  9:59am

I like what I see in Alder Roth. A common sense approach, fiscal responsibility and the best interest of the citizens at large.
Roth for Mayor???

posted by: compassionateconservative on June 6, 2018  9:59pm

Alder Abby Roth has been the voice of common sense, reason, penetrating analysis and insight, AND fiscal restraint. We would not have a $14 million budget deficit in New Haven if even half of the alders took the time to think things through and speak up against doing what we cannot afford to do.

Not only are people going to wake up and vote some of the union/alder puppets out of office, they are unfortunately also going to vote with their feet and leave New Haven, and have already started.

Undoing graft, greed, and backroom deals with politicians who guarantee unions that their collective bargaining contracts, pensions and benefits won’t be touched before they are even elected - that’s the democrat way, and it takes a long time to undo. But look at what has happened to union decline across the country in the last decade alone, and to cities and states that are beholden to union bosses and their “voting blocks.”

Unions? OK! Union greed? NOT OK! Outrageous union contracts are killing our city and our state. I dare to speculate that Abby Roth is not anti-union. But touch the fat union wallets…and watch out.

posted by: R in Westville on June 8, 2018  10:09pm

Bill is correct about West Village. SRO- I tend to think this is in reference to Rooming Houses.