AP NEWS

If you build it, they will rent

April 5, 2019

STAMFORD — More than 30 apartment buildings have been built in Stamford in the last 17 years and the reason for the vertical rush might be a simple statistic hiding in an odd place in City Hall.

Nearly all rental buildings that have gone up in the last span are within a few units of being full, according to data from reports property owners recently filed with the city Social Services Department.

Although this analysis covers data from more than 30 buildings, it likely misses some who have yet to send in reports, according to Land Use Bureau Chief Ralph Blessing.

Downtown’s rental occupancy rate is 94.5 percent and the South End is 93.5 percent full, the property reports show.

That results in a vacancy rate below 7 or 8 percent for both coveted neighborhoods, which is roughly what experts peg as a healthy one, though no simple figure is a true measure because a vacant unit can be empty for many reasons.

Those neighborhoods also have a lower rental vacancy rate than the national average, 6.6 percent last quarter, according to the U.S Census Bureau.

Stamford’s overall rental vacancy is 8.7 percent, according to the most recent data from the census, which shows Stamford has among the tightest rental markets of large Connecticut cities.

Only Norwalk has a lower figure — a 5.8 percent vacancy rate. Other large cities are far more empty with Hartford leading the way at 14.7 percent vacant. New Haven is 11.4 percent empty. Both those rates are high, according to a recent study from the Lincoln Institute Of Land Policy.

The low vacancy rate is like an invitation to build, and the race to do so is something Harbor Point resident Greg Dilenge said he sees out his apartment window.

He has seen several buildings built in his three years there, he said, often spotting 20 people with hardhats working into the night and sometimes on holidays.

“Buildings go up extremely fast,” he said. “There’s no way to sustain it.”

Rick Redniss, a prominent land use consultant in the city, said a tight housing market is just one of the drivers of the building boom.

“I think that goes to the workforce and the number of people who want to live in and around downtown,” he said.

There is also an element of a critical mass that the city has either met or is fast approaching, Redniss said: So many live downtown that the density alone has become the draw.

Units most in demand

The high occupancy rates are also bolstered by affordable housing units, where there is even more demand, reports show.

All told, waitlists for affordable units in the 34 apartment buildings that filed an affordable housing report this year have more than 2,000 names.

Those 2,000 hopefuls vie for only a few spots.

Across all the property reports, only 23 of the nearly 500 affordable apartments built in the last 17 years were vacant when property owners counted, reports show.

According to Blessing, that number was closer to 744 when the Land Use Bureau did a count last October.

Furthermore, the count misses some properties because of a provision in the mandate that allows buildings to buy out of providing units. Those who have bought out of the units, do not send in reports and were not counted.

The units, required by the so-called inclusionary zoning mandate amended to the Zoning Regulations in the 2002, account for roughly 10 percent of all new units in developments of 10 units or more.

On average, they are available to those making half the area’s median income, or $67,000 for a family of four last year.

Social Services Director Ellen Bromley said the city is now working to fix some of the program’s shortcomings, but the wait-list lengths are probably due to several duplicates.

Bromley tells residents interested in the units to apply to each property’s waitlist, she said, because no centralized waitlist yet exists.

Blessing said the Zoning Board will soon discuss changing zoning codes to pave the way for a centralized list.

Some properties have more people on waitlists then the buildings have apartments.

The Infinity building in Harbor Point, for example, has 531 people on waitlists for affordable one-bedroom and two-bedroom units. There are only 24 affordable units in the the 242-unit building.

Downtown’s The Parallel 41 building on Washington Boulevard has 278 names on the list for only seven units.

Still, Bromley said, the need for affordable housing is clear.

“This is one of many programs targeted at working households, but the need goes throughout income levels,” she said.

The program is but a small piece of the affordable housing puzzle in the city, an affordable housing study from last fall shows.

Another 2,300 affordable units are supplied by Charter Oak Communities, which is the city’s Housing Authority.

Section 8, a federal program that helps low-income residents afford units by awarding them vouchers that defray rent costs, gives the city 1,500 units.

For all these programs renters usually pay 30 percent of their gross income to rent, or $1,250 a month for someone making $50,000 a year.

That compares to the $2,000 to $4,000 that market-rate renters pay each month for units in the same buildings.

Mounting pushback

All the recent building has spurred mounting backlash from some city residents who say the city is being bought and sold without them benefiting.

In 2017, for example, over-development was a central theme of Republican mayoral contender Barry Michelson’s failed bid. That election also carried into office city Representatives who have since voted against builders’ interests several times.

Twice in the past year, the Board of Representatives has voted to overturn a pro-development Planning or Zoning board decision. And this spring the board voted to hike building permit fees for larger projects. For every thousand dollars above $1 million in costs, builders will soon send the city $25, a more than 50 percent jump.

Meantime, residents in the South End, where thousands of units have been built in the Harbor Point development, are now calling for a moratorium on large-scale projects until a measure of the building boom’s impacts are better known.

“Until an updated, independent study is made on the impact of population growth and development density, we are requesting a moratorium be conducted on high-rise development, special exceptions ... applications, amendments, and zoning changes in the South End,” wrote leaders of the South End Neighborhood Revitalization Zone.

barry.lytton@stamfordadvocate.com; 203-964-2263; @bglytton