In 2015, a large 72-unit development of one- and two-bedroom apartments classified as affordable housing opened in Brookfield, Connecticut. Brookfield is a well-off town that is part of Connecticut’s largely affluent Fairfield County and has become the focal point of Connecticut’s continuing discussion on local zoning regulations and affordable housing.
The development, dubbed The Residences at Laurel Hill, quickly filled up with occupants and has remained at capacity ever since. Among the residents is 68-year-old Sajjad Bukhari, who just signed his lease for a sixth year living in the three-building complex.
Bukhari moved to Laurel Hill from the neighboring city of Danbury and came with his daughter and two granddaughters who are in grades five and seven. “The schools are good, that’s why we moved here,” Bukhari said. “That’s the only reason, we have two apartments here. My daughter and I live here. It’s very nice, the schools are very nice.”
While Bukhari says Brookfield’s schools were the primary reason for his family’s move out of Danbury, he also notes that finding an apartment he could afford in Danbury was also difficult, more so now following an influx of New Yorkers into the region during the COVID-19 pandemic, which sent real estate and rental prices skyrocketing. “If you go to Danbury, or anywhere, you cannot find any house because after pandemic, too many people came from New York here. There is no rental place. It’s $2,000 for a two bedroom in Danbury and you cannot find anything, nothing.”
Bukhari says he’s starting a new job in Danbury soon, working at a convenience store and Indian restaurant, but he loves living at Laurel Hill, and enjoys his neighbors and the cleanliness.
Another woman sweeping her porch, who asked not to be named, said she moved here to be with her family following a debilitating car accident in West Virginia that leaves her intermittently wincing in pain during the conversation. She’s been living in Laurel Hills for five or six years, she says, and loves her neighbors.
The development is fairly large, occupying what was once fields and forest, and set amongst some old, modest single-family houses. The buildings are three stories high and extend along a quiet, small street just off Federal Road in Brookfield, but the Laurel Hills development, like several other housing developments in this area, were considered a critical piece to redeveloping Brookfield’s “downtown” area.
It’s known locally as Four Corners because of the intersection of Federal Road with Whisconier Road where four gas stations occupy the four corners of the intersection. Over the past twenty years, the Four Corners area, like other parts of Federal Road in Brookfield, has been built up with businesses. The rapid change, including the addition of affordable housing developments, hasn’t always sat well with long-time residents.
“I think that most municipalities are popular among residents who have been there for some time and have a character about them,” said Matthew Grimes, a life-long Brookfield resident and attorney who served on Brookfield’s zoning commission for five years. “And I think there is an overall premonition that more housing changes the character of the town, whether good, bad or indifferent, and anytime there is change not everybody likes it.”
The nearest neighbors to the Laurel Hill development, who have lived on the street for 15 to 27 years say they have little issue with the new neighbors, no complaints of noise or problems, but add that the buildup makes their old neighborhood feel a bit crowded, despite enjoying the new businesses that have come to the area.
“It’s good to have some affordable housing,” one neighbor said, “but it’s somewhat excessive.” Another commented that she didn’t like it; “It’s getting more city in here now. It’s not like it used to be.”
This dynamic between town residents concerned about rapid change and buildup versus the need for more housing for people of varied income status in wealthier Connecticut towns has been playing out at the Capitol in Hartford over the last several years. The normally sleepy Planning and Development Committee became a hotbed of political debate and accusations that town zoning commissions are perpetuating systematic racism by opposing affordable housing developments and pushing back against bills aimed at reforming local zoning laws from the top down.
During the 2021 legislative session, some legislative changes to local zoning laws were enacted, allowing for additional dwelling units like an in-law attachment to be constructed on existing properties and removing the ability for zoning commissions to cite a town’s “character” as a reason for denying a housing development, replacing the word “character” with “physical site characteristics.”
The 2021 changes were far less than proponents of zoning reform had hoped for: towns have the ability to opt out of the additional dwelling unit provision of the bill, and although the term “character” can’t be used as a reason to deny a development, towns still have the ability to enforce the architectural and aesthetic aspects of their zoning laws.
Although 2022, an election year, saw little in the way of zoning and affordable housing pushes at the Capitol, the 2023 legislative session will likely be a different story after state Democrats, who have been advocating for those changes, maintained large majorities in both chambers and some Republicans leading the opposition to zoning reforms and affordable housing laws, like former State Representative Kimberly Fiorello of Greenwich, were unseated.
Writing in the Hartford Courant, House Majority Leader Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, made his intentions clear, saying that “Housing must be at the forefront of our collective agenda” in order to reduce the cost of living, improve educational outcomes for children, and increase diversity in Connecticut towns.
“Connecticut limits housing choice for young professionals, first-time home buyers, the elderly, those with mobility limits, and families of all kinds, especially working poor families,” Rojas wrote in the January 2, 2023, op-ed. “During the next legislative session, it’s time we address our housing policies to focus on affordability and expanding access to equality of opportunity.”
Brookfield, however, implemented their economic and housing developments years before local zoning issues came to the forefront of the legislature. It was part of a larger plan for growth and sustainability and involved the Town of Brookfield reforming its own zoning laws to meet its needs. It was about more than affordable housing, it was about revitalizing the area.
Those plans – good, bad or indifferent, depending on who one speaks with – began more than ten years ago and they began with a long-awaited highway project meant to curb congestion in the Four Corners area as commuters from neighboring New Milford passed through Brookfield on their way to Danbury and New York.
In 2009, construction was completed on what’s known as the Route 7 Bypass, allowing commuters to and from Danbury to be routed around the Four Corners area of Brookfield and head directly into New Milford. Previously, traffic in the Four Corners area would be jam-packed on Federal Road, which was only two lanes and wound through Brookfield and into New Milford. The travel was time-consuming, but also kept Four Corners filled with cars and businesses to service those commuters.
That changed following completion of the Route 7 Bypass, according to Greg Dembowski, Brookfield’s Community Development Specialist who oversaw the rebuilding of Brookfield’s Four Corners region.
“After the Route 7 Bypass that went in in 2009, that kind of turned our downtown that was bustling into a little bit of a ghost town. A lot of businesses shut their doors, there was no reinvestment in our downtown,” Dembowski said.
In fact, the effect of the Route 7 Bypass on businesses in Four Corners may have been more pronounced than planners had projected. According to the Four Corners Brookfield Town Center Revitalization Plan, commissioned by the town and conducted by the firm Fitzgerald & Halliday in association with 4Ward Planning, LLC in 2012, 70 percent of traffic was diverted from Four Corners to the bypass and that left the area struggling.
The study surveyed more than 1,000 residents, held focus groups and determined the size of pent-up demand in Brookfield for expanded dining, shopping and housing options. Respondents wanted revitalization of the area but were also concerned with maintaining the “rustic appeal” and not having Four Corners get bogged down with big box stores and “cookie cutter design,” like the areas of Federal Road further west where there are major stores like Costco’s, BJ’s and an overflowing amount of furniture stores.
The studies examined existing parcels of land, both developed and undeveloped, and integrated the town’s vision of development that “will have complementary scale, character and density” and “will offer places to live, work, shop, eat, find entertainment and cultural enrichment.”
The study determined that Brookfield residents’ median area income was, at the time, over $108,000 per year, which was higher than surrounding areas and the state at large, and residents were ready to spend money on dining and entertainment. According to 4Ward Planning’s analysis, Brookfield residents spent $6,393 per year dining out, compared to $4,686 for the surrounding three counties.
It wasn’t just businesses, however, which were needed to revitalize the Four Corners area. They needed people to live in the area, to walk the sidewalks envisioned by the plan, and to frequent the businesses they hoped to bring into town. There was a dearth of housing in the area, creating pent-up demand, particularly for rental units, according to the study.
According to 4Ward Planning’s analysis, at the time, there were only two two-bedroom units listed for rent and the median monthly rental rate was $1,850. The plan by Fitzgerald & Halliday envisioned mixed-used retail and living space and multi-family units, noting that “Recent studies have found that both individuals in their 20s and 30s as well as those of retirement age are seeking smaller housing units in a walkable environment as their preferred housing choice.”
Town planners perceived this demand could be met but in order to meet those goals the town needed to overhaul its zoning regulations, which Fitzgerald & Halliday listed in their plan.
“We added the outcome of that study into our plan of conservation and development,” Dembowski said, “and that really allowed, that really energized the boards and commissions to make changes to whatever zoning regulations needed to be made to accomplish that goal. And that all became part of what’s now our revitalization of our downtown you see today, which is really becoming, I think, really taking off a lot more than people thought years ago.”
The Laurel Hill development was part of this plan to revitalize Brookfield’s downtown, Four Corners area and, Dembowski notes, it’s not the only high-density project in the area. “A lot of it really came to be because of our revitalization plan and our plan of conservation and development that identified the need for housing in our downtown to attract businesses.”
Laurel Hill is certainly not the only housing development in the Four Corners area and not the only affordable housing development in Brookfield. Over the past ten years, a number of new developments have popped up – not just apartments, but also single-family residential neighborhoods in which a percentage of the new houses must be “affordable” depending on definition – as well as a number of affordable housing developments for seniors.
And that definition can get a bit messy and confusing. Basically, affordable housing means the individual or family does not have to pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. If the development is part of a state or federal funding program, that 30 percent for housing costs is based on anywhere from 30 to 80 percent of the area’s median income.
Over the course of proposing, receiving the green light for, and actually building the Laurel Hill development, however, the number of affordable housing units offered at Laurel Hill changed, according to Marty Flynn, who served on Brookfield’s sewer commission, the board of selectmen and as the chairman of Brookfield’s Zoning Board of Appeals for ten years, including during the revitalization of Four Corners and the construction Laurel Hill.
Flynn says Laurel Hill was originally supposed to be a mix of mostly market-rate apartments combined with incentivized rate apartments, which would base rental rates on 80 percent of the area’s median income – which in Brookfield’s case was quite high.
“The idea was you could have retired people or teachers, cops or firemen living there,” Flynn said. “Then, when I looked into Laurel Hill, it turns out somewhere near the end everything had changed, and the federal government had given the developer the ability to sell tax credits and strings were all those units became low-income housing and that changed everything at the last minute.”
According to Dakota Partners, the developer of Laurel Hills, financing for the $17.5 million project was provided, in part, by “the State of Connecticut’s Competitive Housing Assistance for Multifamily Properties (CHAMP) program and by federal and state housing tax credits administered by the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. Stratford Capital is the tax credit syndicator for the project.”
According to the Connecticut Department of Housing’s 2015-2016 annual report, the Laurel Hills project received $5 million from DOH’s Housing Trust Fund, which provides financing to create housing for low to moderate income families.
The subject came up during a debate between candidates for Brookfield’s First Selectman, with then-First Selectman Stephen Dunn saying, “Laurel Hill used a loophole in Federal law to move there (sic) affordable from 20% affordable to 100% affordable,” before he took office, according i95rock.com.
And while some town officials might not have liked the sleight-of-hand change, the addition of Laurel Hill’s 72-unit development that includes income restrictions in which an individual can earn no more than $48,900 per year and a family of four no more than $69,780 per year, the additional units pushed Brookfield’s affordable housing stock higher than many of its surrounding neighbors.
“That project and a couple others increased our affordable housing percentage to a very high rate relative to the rest of our region, excluding the big city of Danbury,” Dembowski said. “That allowed us to apply for an affordable housing moratorium four years ago that we were granted and just got renewed this past June.”
According to The Partnership for Strong Communities (PSC), Brookfield now has 5.4 percent of its housing stock deemed affordable, equating to 351 units that receive some form of government assistance.
PSC did a write-up regarding the expansion of affordable housing in Brookfield, noting that, “These housing developments are key in assuring the success of the center town district: more people living near Four Corners will likely provide customers for businesses in the area while increasing the options for those who want to be closer to their workplace.”
Brookfield’s affordable housing plan submitted to Connecticut’s Department of Housing in May of 2022, indicated that Brookfield’s affordable housing stock has increased from .83 percent in 2005 to 5.6 percent in 2020, with 369 units receiving government assistance.
But with large developments, there come concerns, pushback and reactions. Naturally, more people and more development means an increased need for services by the town, but also higher revenue for the town. In essence, with growth comes growing pains.
Flynn says town residents were concerned about an influx of children into the school system from the affordable housing developments. “More kids move into the schools, it costs us more money because the buildings don’t pay the taxes that the kids in school will cost us,” Flynn said. “That’s part of it. Traffic, things like that. Impact on the schools, I would say, is the number one concern.”
“There are different things affordable housing affects,” Grimes said. “For example, affordable housing, which becomes attractive to younger families or single parents with young children, that obviously could have a strain on your school system. Now in most cases in greater Danbury, including Brookfield, we’ve had declining enrollment over the recent years, so we’ve not seen that effect yet, but it’s not to say it couldn’t happen.”
“I really doubt if it’s a one-bedroom apartment you’re going to have a large family there, so that would be no impact on the schools,” Dembowski said. “The vast majority of those projects that are approved and that are planned are either studios, one bedroom or two bedrooms, there are a little bit of three bedroom but it’s mostly smaller. So, if you have a studio or a one bedroom, I can’t imagine it having a big impact on our school population.”
In fact, Brookfield’s student population has declined since the buildup around Four Corners, dropping from 2,719 students during the 2014-2015 school year, to 2,601 students during the 2021 to 2022 school year, according to state data, even as the town builds a new elementary school at a cost of $78 million.
Dembowski says the declining student population is not necessarily a good thing. “That, by the way, is not a healthy thing for a community. You want to have a healthy school population you want to have a good mix of every demographic.”
Meanwhile, the general population of Brookfield has grown, rising from 16,452 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, to 17,528 in 2020, a 6.5 percent increase. More housing brought more people and more revenue into town coffers in the form of property tax revenue, as well, which increased from $57 million in 2015 to $68.3 million in 2021.
And with population and business growth comes expenses to provide services to residents. Dembowski says the addition of the affordable housing units throughout Brookfield means more people to patronize businesses and increased town revenue, “but with that, of course, is additional services the town has to provide.”
“The town is a municipality, we provide every service,” Dembowski said. “We have a library we have a senior center we have fire police emergency service; we have parks and recreation.”
“When you build any housing development you are committing the municipality to it,” Grimes said.
Calls for emergency services have increased, notably in the new affordable housing units, including Laurel Hill, according to Brookfield Police Chief John Puglisi. But, he notes, it’s a byproduct of just having more people in higher density areas.
“There’s been an increase in calls at those locations because they didn’t exist prior, but, overall, I would say yes there’s been an increase in services for police and fire and EMS,” Puglisi said. “The commercial stuff brings people into the area and has had a positive effect, but, overall, our calls for service due to the amount of housing going in has naturally gone up. More people mean more emergencies and complaints.”
And increased service calls don’t necessarily translate into crime, but rather all services, which is of particular note for a town with an outsized senior population for which they have built age-restricted affordable housing units.
“Brookfield’s senior population is very high,” Grimes said. “They require social services. The elderly require social services, the elderly require ambulance, the elderly require safety and protection, that sort of thing,” Grimes said.
“We need to have the discussion about having more paid ambulance in different parts of town because it’s very hard for — I think we have two paid paramedics right now — we’re staffed entirely by volunteers to deal with that and properly service our residents. We need to make sure we have adequate resources to do that and anytime you add any kind of housing those services do not decrease,” Grimes continued.
“The one thing in hindsight I think the town would wish we had done with the Laurel Hills development is we did not require at the time elevators to be in that building, so that’s a three-story building with no elevators and that makes providing emergency services much more challenging,” Dembowski said.
The economic and housing developments in Brookfield are continuing. Along Federal Road in the Four Corners area a grocery store is under construction, as is a medical center; additional sidewalks are being built to facilitate more foot traffic. More housing units are being built just around the corner from Laurel Hill, and, although some neighbors say they feel crowded, only one said they are considering moving, but not anytime soon.
Besides Brookfield’s current moratorium on affordable housing, there do exist other challenges, Dembowski says, noting there are several projects that have been approved but not yet begun due to supply chain issues lingering from the COVID-19 pandemic, construction costs, inflation and backlogged materials.
“A couple developers told me they couldn’t get windows in for six months so there’s a lot, with the interest rate environment, covid played an impact on the whole dynamic,” Dembowski said. “There’s a lot of variables at play so all we can hope for is interest rates get tamed and we keep on the path we have to complete our plan of conservation and development here in town, that’s what I’m chartered to do, to keep the strategy we laid out.”
And although the term “character” may not have a role to play in official zoning proceedings in Connecticut following the 2021 legislation, the fact remains that this is largely what people are talking about when it comes to economic expansion, development, growth and growing pains. Not everyone will like growth and change and that often comes out during debates on large affordable housing developments like Laurel Hill.
“You probably see businesses going up in the Four Corners today because there are people there to do it,” Grimes said. “If you did not have the housing that’s there those businesses would not be opening because there would be no people to patronize those businesses.”
“I’m sure like any other matter, some are in favor of it, some probably aren’t as much in favor of it but that depends on the individual,” Dembowski said. “I’m sure the people that live in those units, which are very beautiful, they see it as a benefit. If you’re stuck in traffic, you probably don’t see it as much of a benefit.”
“The town has grown,” Dembowski said. “We have many businesses that moved to town over the past few years. That has brought employment opportunities in a lot of ways. If you talk about the character of a town, the town has grown. We have more affordable housing but our parks and our lakes and our recreation opportunities and our library and all the things we offer are no different.”
“Some people just don’t like change for the sake of change, and I understand that,” he continued.
Despite Brookfield’s ramp up in housing – both affordable and market rate – and its growing economy and population, those interviewed were very skeptical of the push for further state control over local zoning regulations. In their view, the state already regulates enough, and they were able to change their own zoning regulations to meet the town’s goals, even if that goal wasn’t shared by every single resident.
Marty Flynn points to education mandates passed down by the state, limiting how much Brookfield can decrease education spending even as enrollment declines.
“We have very little control of our town,” Flynn said. “Everything is controlled by the state legislature, so we don’t really have a lot of control. Even with zoning. We have a zoning commission and a planning commission, and we have regulations but all that can be bypassed because of the state, the state reps make all these rules. So, we don’t control our spending, we don’t control our zoning, we probably don’t even control our school curriculum. It seems like the only thing we can control is whether we get a new library.”
“There’s a lot of discussion at the state level about doing some kind of statewide or regionalized planning and zoning which I think is a very, very bad move for the state of Connecticut to go down. I think that zoning needs to be maintained locally. I think that Brookfield needs to continually update their regulations,” Grimes said. “That’s something that needs to be updated as often as the town charter is revised.”
Dembowski, too, says he’s not in favor of it, noting that for the first time this past June Brookfield, like every other municipality, submitted an affordable housing plan to the state Department of Housing, which they did on time.
“In that plan we laid out the 5 or 6 steps that we have to increase affordable housing,” Dembowski said. “I understand the reason, I understand the need. We lay out the plan on how we’re going to achieve and increase affordable housing, but I’d much rather do it with us controlling each of the steps along the way.”
During his 2023 State of the State Address, Gov. Ned Lamont hinted that he’d like to work with local officials toward increasing housing, rather than against them. Acknowledging that Connecticut’s lack of affordable housing is hurting economic growth and affordability, Lamont said he didn’t want more taxes, but wanted more taxpayers.
“But the biggest slam to our affordability and economic growth is housing, or the lack thereof,” Lamont said. “The answer cannot simply be more subsidies. Connecticut towns and cities, you tell us where developers can build more housing so more housing can be built faster, at less cost, and local control will determine how and where it is built.”
Regardless of how Brookfield got to where it is today, and the mixed reactions of residents, the fact remains that the town was able to address an economic shock that came to their downtown region following construction and opening of the Route 7 Bypass. It wasn’t just a matter of building businesses but expanding housing to meet demand, whether market rate or affordable housing.
And with growth comes change, whether “good, bad or indifferent.” Brookfield is not exactly what it was twenty years ago, but it’s not that much different either.
“We’ve been hosting two ribbon cutting events per month and every time we have them, we get the big ribbon and the big scissors, and we have the big speeches, but businesses that are coming in they’ve either expanded or moved to this area for a reason,” Dembowski said. “That’s a good thing when it comes to the character of a town, its growing in that way, we have more, if you go up and down federal road, I can point to them, all the businesses that have opened in the past two years. That’s a good thing because of all the services they provide, the employment opportunities, we have a lot of first-time-ever kinds of things happening in Brookfield so in that way that’s a good thing, but again everyone has their own opinion.”
With the development comes more revenue and more expenses, they are part and parcel of the same vision of a Four Corners area that is walkable, filled with businesses, restaurants and soon a new grocery store.
“The kids go there for ice cream and other things and that’s good,” Sajjad Bukhari said. “The gas prices are a bit much here, but I’m going to stay here until they finish their school.”