She Can’t Just Create A 1-Bedroom

Christopher Peak PhotoMillennials in East Rock would gladly downsize to one-bedroom apartments — if the city rules didn’t make them hard to build.

Zoners heard that argument from a young couple who rehab historic homes and have a new project requiring a deviation from what’s allowed in even a high-density residential area.

Citing the demand for smaller units in East Rock, Jaqueline Carleton McFadyen asked the Board of Zoning Appeals at its monthly meeting Tuesday at 200 Orange St. to grant a variance —  a hurdle that can be met only with an extraordinary hardship rooted in the land —  so she can convert the walk-in basement at 43 Lawrence St. into an efficiency apartment.

That change would mean the building had only 757 square feet of lot size per dwelling, where 2,000 square feet are required; that a staircase cut the side yard to three feet, where five are required; and that no parking would be available, where one on-site spot is required.

Even under a laxer standard for conversions, which is judged by the gross floor area, the project would still come up short of the 1,500 square feet required per unit.

“A lot of millennials are moving in. We know how to live with small amounts of space that’s well-engineered and planned out,” McFadyen said. “My husband and I have plans from our architect to make sure there’s plenty of space, not cramping any of our tenants.”

City planning staff recommended denying the application, saying it didn’t follow the city’s strict rules for a variance. McFadyen hinted that the law might not be right, arguing in her presentation that East Rock needs these smaller apartments.

The application will go before the City Plan Commission before it returns to the Board of Zoning Appeals at its next meeting for a final vote.

McFadyen said she and her husband left New York City three and a half years ago to pursue jobs in New Haven. After settling in East Rock, they bought a vacant house on Nash Street out of foreclosure, fixed it up and rented it to tenants. McFadyen said that the one-bedroom was a hot commodity.

“We found that there aren’t a ton of one-bedrooms that are well-maintained and affordable in the East Rock neighborhood. Sure, you could live at 360 [State St.] or in a luxury apartment at Corsair, but there aren’t so many other options,” she said. “My husband and I really take pride in developing these homes to what the neighborhood should be, attracting really interesting, eclectic neighbors.”

McFadyen bought the Lawrence Street property, a decrepit brick rowhouse that had sat vacant for nearly 15 years. She thought she could rehab the historic property too, and like she’d done on Nash Street, rent it out. She envisioned keeping the house as its own apartment but converting the basement into its own unit.

“We’re not increasing the number of bedrooms,” McFadyen said. “We’re just reorganizing how they’d be used.”

Patrick Gourley, an assistant economics professor at the University of New Haven, testified in favor of the project. He said that there’s a definite shortage of one-bedroom apartments in the area.

“There seems to be a huge lack of moderately priced one-bedrooms,” he said. “I currently have a roommate for that reason, because the one-bedrooms that I looked at were, in my mind, very expensive and out of my price range.”

In an advisory report, Nate Hougrand, a planning staffer, said there was nothing unusual about the lot that necessitated the “exceptional degree of relief that is being requested” for adding another unit.

He added that it made sense to cut down the side yard, as a “minor improvement related to an existing doorway,” but he couldn’t find a justification for allowing the second unit, contrary to the comprehensive plan’s discouragement of converting residences into denser apartments.

McFadyen said that being a rowhouse was a hardship in itself. Without surrounding land or living space, there wasn’t room for density, parking and side yards. “It’s just a little bit of a different situation from a normal single-family home,” she said. “There’s very few examples of rowhouses in New Haven. It’s a different setup from what a normal unit is like.”

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posted by: TheMadcap on June 14, 2018  1:13pm

I too would gladly downsize into a modest 1br, or even a reasonable studio, if it were an option. However both those things are valuable commodities, and it’s cheaper for me to share a 2br in one of the nicest parts of town vs finding a 1br almost anywhere for the same price.

posted by: brownetowne on June 14, 2018  2:58pm

It’s clear that zoning rules need to be revised to reflect the current needs of the residents and property owners within the city.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on June 14, 2018  4:13pm

Nate Hougrand is probably right that the application does not meet the criteria for a variance.  But the zoning ordinance was initially adopted nearly a century ago, when density was seen as a social evil. There have also been huge demographic changes since then. Currently, 37% of New Haven’s households consist of a single individual, comparable to the proportion in Boston, Chicago, and Denver.

The square footage requirements are outdated. My wife and I live in a (pre-zoning) house with 1,376 gross square feet. Presumably it housed larger families for most of its history.

posted by: Ryn111 on June 14, 2018  4:17pm

Some of the goals stated in the Vision 2025 Plan:

Build a sustainable, healthy and vibrant city.

Planning focus in the city should be promoting strategic neighborhood based planning efforts to reinforce a sense of place and distinct identity for each neighborhood.

Promote quality, non subsidized and workforce housing development within the city.

Improving overall housing affordability.

posted by: Ryn111 on June 14, 2018  4:23pm

@Kevin you are spot on. The city needs to revisit. It has been a year since Cambridge allowed for increased density in its city. Their overlay district opened the possibility for potentially 1,000 additional apartments within existing buildings.

https://boston.curbed.com/2016/1/21/10845060/cambridge-basement-apartments

These apartments can be build for less than new construction and when done legally and up to code they have little negative impact on an area.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on June 14, 2018  4:28pm

A lot of millennials are moving in.

Yes they are.The millennials are nothing more then the new breed of hipsters.

Patrick Gourley, an assistant economics professor at the University of New Haven, testified in favor of the project. He said that there’s a definite shortage of one-bedroom apartments in the area.

There is also a definite shortage of apartments for the working poor and low income period.

When these new breed of millennial hipsters start moving in.Get ready for social media, smartphones, artisanal food, and Airbnb Rentals.

posted by: Edward Francis on June 14, 2018  5:28pm

The neighborhood being talked about is “Goatville” not East Rock.  There is a history for Goatville.  Do we want to change the names of other neighborhood?  Perhaps “Goatville” is not suffocated enough for the developers and real estate barons and the Yale community.  Long live Goatville.

posted by: wendy1 on June 14, 2018  6:47pm

Small is better for many reasons—-cheaper to heat and cool, easier to clean, etc.  Unfortunately rents are still too high here for the average worker, white collar or blue.  I prefer the intimacy and coziness of a studio or one bdrm personally.

posted by: AMDC on June 14, 2018  6:56pm

I guess we don’t get it.  Downtown NH and trendy neighborhoods are to be made denser but still expensive.  3/5’s: low income and working poor are not wanted but where are they gonna go?

I personally don’t like the idea of one bedroom units. Who wants to live in a shoebox?  Tiny houses are adorable to set up but let’s try living in one and see how fun that is.

I recall that Norwich was going to create some sort of housing whereby there would be small living /sleeping areas and lots of communal spaces for cooking and communing.  What ever happened to that?  Many folks who are not millenials but empty-nesters would like a communal set up. It would be like the neighborhoods used to be. Any interest in NH for this?

posted by: observer1 on June 15, 2018  7:47am

A lot of the better managed towns in the area want less population density per property footprint allowed. Less people per property consumed mean less schools and services required which equates to less tax dollars spent. 20 people per acre versus 2 or 4 people per acre means that less tax dollars are spent per acre on schools and services.  A moratorium on allowing more units rather than less units would have an immediate impact. In my opinion the city should be looking to reduce population in the city center and force that population away form the center into neighborhoods on the edges of downtown. Keep the commerce; banks, restaurants, offices, medical, hotels and retail concentrated in the downtown area.  Other than Yale students, most people would live in the outer rings of the city, only coming downtown to be entertained, shop and be fed. The city would still get the tax dollars form the existing properties, but the tax dollars consumed would be used elsewhere. This is a novel idea that might work. What is happening now, we know is not working. We must reduce the amount of tax dollars being spent or the city will have to go bankrupt. If the city goes bankrupt with out changing anything, it will still spend and bond itself into oblivion. Eventually, the city runs out of financial tricks and is taken over and run by the state, We all know how well the state runs things.

posted by: Ryn111 on June 15, 2018  8:10am

This is the best part of new haven ; the varied opinion of this comments section.

@Edward - go by Corsair. The goatville history is celebrated in their branding.

@AMDC isn’t what your referring to an SRO? Lease term aside - small private room with communal kitchen / amenities. Oh wait the city just issued a moritorium on this!

@observer - better managed towns? Didn’t we just get hit with an 11 % tax increase?!  While breaking ground on another new school?! Focusing on the revenue side of city issues will dry this town out. Taxes will have nowhere to go but up and nonresidential development is limitled. Expense management and accountability is needed. People want to live downtown- and the conversion of the union prooved that. Further the correlation of 1bedrooms and school children isnt strong. And to support your argument converting any existing structure will increase it’s value and therefor taxes — MORE REVENUE FOR THE CITY!

posted by: robn on June 15, 2018  8:38am

This probably wouldn’t be a density problem if NHV had a robust car share program (taxis are an unreliable version of that; UBER is a pricey version of that; ZipCar is currently tailored for Yale campus and too limited; driverless cars seem to still be running over people in test cities).

On the flip side, in properties held by absentee landlords, we would see multiplication of decaying property problems we’re already witnessing. Basement apartments are particularly vulnerable to poor air quality, mold infestation, and poor daylight.

posted by: Hopeful Resident on June 15, 2018  9:50am

It is about time that small property owners are given the same exceptions, benefits, tax breaks, and treatment big developers get and that the developers pay their fair share of taxes like the rest of us. The system is broken. The zoning laws are indeed outdated. It’s time for a complete reevaluation of the laws and the management of this City. We all know that too few properties are paying taxes, PILOT monies are far from what they are intended to be.

So the burden is really on the homeowners. Rents are high because taxes and operating costs are high, and as taxes, insurance and utilities costs continue to skyrocket, the profitability of rental units for the small homeowner or small investor falls.

The City needs a new attitude and realize that it is often homeowners of modest means who are investing in their own neighborhood- these are often the folks who keep neighborhoods alive and liveable. When we begin to treat those who love and invest in their neighborhoods as well as we treat the big developers (who get variances for oversized developments and enormous tax deals as well as oversized variances for properties that will yield them serious profits) this city might become affordable and certainly more livable.

posted by: TheMadcap on June 15, 2018  10:09am

“This is a novel idea that might work. “

It’s literally decades of failed urban renewal proposals that cities around the nation are now having to fix

posted by: Dennis Serf on June 15, 2018  10:37am

She bought the property knowing she couldn’t legally convert the basement to an apt, and the purchase price reflected this. Now she wants an exception where none exists. She wants a special deal.  Imagine if Pike were to convert all its 3 family houses to 4 units by converting the basements into apartments. Im not sure that would be a good thing.

posted by: Ryn111 on June 15, 2018  11:02am

@robn there are several apps for ride sharing that are reasonable vs owning a car but why would greater density necessitate more cars? (shopping? Have you heard of amazon?) I think regardless of you opinion on this NHV is decently connected to transit and manageable without a car.  (tweed would help)

Your generalization about basement apartments speaks more to the illegal dwelling units in the homes owned by slumlords. When an owner is going to make the investment to legally add a dwelling unit it needs to meet code. (Ceiling heights and egress come to mind) Anyone doing this also open themselves up to inspection by the the building department and would have to address other issues that might cause an added unit in the basement to be dingy. That said why spend money to build a dingy apartment no one wants?

posted by: robn on June 15, 2018  12:21pm

RYN111,

Greater density brings more people who generally bring more cars; zoning reflects that reality by requiring a certain amount of on site parking for a certain amount of inhabitants. I’d like it to be different but its not.

Basements in New Haven are tricky because most housing predates the 1900s and there’s no foundation perimeter drainage or waterproofing. Unless on completely excavates around a house and puts in perimeter drainage and waterproofing, what people tend to do is try to parge the basement walls with liquid applied waterproofing (which will eventually fail) or they try to make a perimeter trough and drain sump to remove water (theres still water there though and potential for mold.)

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on June 15, 2018  12:52pm

AMDC, no one is asking you or anyone else to move to a small one bedroom. If you are happy where you are, that’s great.  But New Haven’s land use regulations are part of the reason why its housing is unaffordable to many low- and moderate-income people.

Going to your last point, that type of housing is considered a boarding house under the zoning ordinance. They are allowed in a small part of the city. I believe that boarding houses and SROs/rooming houses are part of the answer to the city’s affordable housing problem. I hope that the city’s Affordable Housing Task Force looks at both, and many other options, in addressing this problem.

posted by: brownetowne on June 15, 2018  1:05pm

Robn is likely right about some of the major problems one would face converting a basement into a proper livable space.  But, the larger issue is that such apartments would still not allowed even if they were above grade.

posted by: Ryn111 on June 15, 2018  1:53pm

@robn - valid points. The field stone foundations here are scary and often to appear to be the opposite of a water barrier. But it can be done correctly.

@ Dennis - I do cringe at the thought of a Pike basement apartment. But for owner occupied homes this could be a solution to some of the issues the city is facing.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on June 15, 2018  2:17pm

I agree with many of the comments made thus far.

One way to bridge the very legitimate concerns brought up by Robn (which I think are broadly representative of most homeowners in the City and therefore the most important constituency to engage) with others’ desires to encourage greater density, would be through zoning for accessory uses. With robust accessory uses provisions in residential districts, homeowner-occupants could be provided with greater freedom to make modifications to their property. while absentee owners would be much more restricted in what they can do, which may encourage more widespread investment in properties without the pushback from longtime neighbors.

I think it is helpful to think of properties as living, breathing entities capable of changing along with their human occupants - growing, shrinking, subdividing, and consolidating along with the people who inhabit the property and structures. I think it is also important to reward owner-occupancy and stewardship while discouraging absenteeism and neglect. Zoning for accessory uses, while not a silver bullet, may play an important role in rethinking our current land use regulatory environment and its impact on development. I think that New Haven’s quintessential housing type - the two-family house - is the ideal model for development with an owner-occupied unit paired with a rental unit. There is wide variation on this model throughout the city, but that basic premise of an owner-occupant with an accessory use (rental apartment, home business, etc.) seems to me to be a good vision for the entire metropolitan region.

posted by: Stephen Harris on June 17, 2018  7:36am

Our zoning regulations are based on information gathered in the late 1950’s. They reflect very dated urban planning theory and desperately need modernization. Yet, it never happens.

Because there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of variances granted over the years the regulations have become more of a nuisance to get around than a code to guide development. They have become practically irrelevant.

At some point someone in a political leadership position (Mayor perhaps) needs to step forward and modernize the City’s development code.

posted by: Sabrina-in-NewHaven on June 17, 2018  6:10pm

There is a shortage of affordable housing period. How does a city that says they want to attract bright and innovative individuals not want to make it easier for people like Ms. McFayden and her husband to help fill this void. New Haven gets so many things right and this is a frontier that they are going to need to revisit. I mean how old is this law anyway.

I live with my family because of the simple fact that affordable 1 bd room apartments are just not there. And even fewer allow animals. Anyway, I am glad to see so many others weighing in on this issue.