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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Advocates: Don’t ignore housing - Affordable homes called necessary in new-look downtowns

As published in the Record Journal, Saturday January 26, 2013

By Russell Blair
Record-Journal staff
(203) 317-2225

WALLINGFORD - The New Haven-to-Springfield commuter rail line will present opportunities for new businesses in downtown Meriden and Wallingford, but housing advocates say developers must also look to include affordable housing.

“You can’t talk about transit without talking about housing,” Shelby Mertes, chief policy analyst for the Partnership for Strong Communities, said Friday during a meeting of the Meriden-Wallingford Coalition on Housing.

Meriden and Wallingford officials have already begun planning downtown zoning changes.

In Wallingford, the Planning and Zoning Commission is fine-tuning a proposal for an Incentive Housing Zone, which would allow high-density development but require some affordable housing.

Meriden officials have drawn up five districts in the area around the train station. Vacant properties on Hanover Street and Cook Avenue, including the site of the recently razed former Factory H and an old medical office building, would be redeveloped into mixed-use, residential properties.

Robyn-Jay Bage, chairwoman of the Meriden-Wallingford Coalition on Housing Steering Committee, said it’s important to clarify the difference between affordable housing and federally subsidized low income housing. Affordable housing refers to privately built units that are rented at a rate deemed reasonable for people making 80 percent or less of the area median income.

“These are our children, our employees, our customers and other similar groups,” Bage said. “They need places to live.”

Mertes said one way to make affordable housing more palatable to a community is to mix it with market rate housing. He compared it to including spinach in lasagna to get someone to eat spinach.

“We all know how difficult it is to get kids, and even some adults, to eat their vegetables,” Mertes said. “Mixed-income housing is embraced by communities.”

Developers can build more units on a smaller piece of land in a mixed-use development. The profits from the market-rate units help subsidize the lower rents or mortgages for the affordable units.

Mertes said mass transit gives people more money to spend in a community. If someone living near the train station doesn’t need to pay for a car, that extra money can be spent at local businesses.

“It puts more money in the economy,” he said.

In the current economy, there’s a lot of demand for smaller, more energy-efficient housing, Mertes said.

But mass transit isn’t for everyone. Mertes said it is important when developing a downtown around the commuter rail to take into consideration who uses mass transportation most: younger people, renters and those with a lower income.

Sean Moore, president of the Greater Meriden Chamber of Commerce, said it is important to start preparing for the rail line, which will begin service in 2016. The New Haven-to-Hartford portion is already fully funded.

“This opportunity obligates us to create amenities for these people,” he said. “The folks who live in these districts are the ones that give us life.”

“This is a once-in-a generation opportunity,” said Sue Murphy, executive director of the Liberty Bank Foundation and a member of the Meriden-Wallingford Coalition on Housing.