hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues September 2016


The Washington, a mixed-use downtown building seen under construction in 2013, included 14 luxury apartments on its upper floors. Under a new affordable-housing program being debated in Saratoga Springs, projects with 10 or more housing units would need to set aside some spaces for low- and moderate-income tenants. Thomas Dimopoulos file photoBy THOMAS DIMOPOULOS
Contributing writer



The Washington, a mixed-use downtown building seen under construction in 2013, included 14 luxury apartments on its upper floors. Under a new affordable-housing program being debated in Saratoga Springs, projects with 10 or more housing units would need to set aside some spaces for low- and moderate-income tenants. Thomas Dimopoulos file photo

Faced with concerns that the city’s growing supply of luxury housing is beyond the price range of many people who currently live and work here, Saratoga Springs officials have dusted off a long-dormant proposal to require a certain number of affordable housing units in new residential developments.

A proposal for “inclusionary zoning,” first floated a decade ago but never brought to a vote by the City Council, would require new housing developments and apartment complexes across the city to include some units deemed affordable to people with lower to moderate incomes.

“We feel this is an under-addressed point in the city,” said Harry Moran, chairman of Sustainable Saratoga, a local nonprofit group that resurrected the 2006 proposal and brought it back to the City Council last month.

Council members unanimously agreed that the idea warranted further review, and the council sent the proposal to the city and the county planning boards for their advisory opinions. Both boards are expected to discuss it this month.

Moran said the proposal is particularly aimed at increasing the supply of housing available to people with moderate incomes.

“We’re targeting middle-income housing,” he said. “And when we say middle income, we mean for a household of four in the city earning $82,000 and under.”

The $82,000 figure is the area median income for a family of four in Saratoga County, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The affordable-housing ordinance would apply to both rental and owner-occupied housing. Year-round city residents would have first opportunity to apply for the affordable units.

According to the proposal, income-eligible rental units are defined as “low income” for households earning less than 50 percent of the median income, a threshold that currently works out to about $41,000 annually, while moderate-income units would be fore households earning less than 80 percent of the median, or about $65,000.

Affordable units put up for sale would be made available to “moderate” and “middle” income households – thresholds respectively set at less than 80 percent, and at 100 percent, of the median income.


‘Density bonus’ for developers
The ordinance would apply to new projects consisting of 10 or more residential units – and also to existing structures undergoing substantial renovation or conversion from nonresidential to residential use.

The number of designated affordable units per project would vary from 10 percent for low-income households to 20 percent for moderate-income households. Units classified as affordable would carry lease and sublet restrictions, presumably to guard against excessively priced racing-season rentals.

To compensate developers, the program would allow them to increase the density of housing projects by up to 20 percent. The program would not use any state or federal funds.

To accommodate the “density bonus” the program would give to developers, the Planning Board would be able to grant relief from existing requirements, such as standard maximum height in the city’s urban core, and allow expanded lot sizes, yard dimensions and a larger number of principal buildings in residential districts.

Mayor Joanne Yepsen suggested the effort could be beneficial to developers as well as to the city.
“It has an economic development impact, a housing impact and a zoning impact,” Yepsen said. “This is hopefully going to be a partnership when it’s all said and done. I’d like to see it benefiting the builders and developers through various incentives. I think it would be very refreshing to have developers partner with the city as we move forward with the specific language of this proposal.”
A housing task force that Yepsen appointed in early 2015 has endorsed the proposal. But Yepsen said she wants to review the ordinance in greater detail with the group to identify any “tweaking” that may be needed. The initial feedback from the community as well as from some builders has been supportive, the mayor said.

“It’s been pretty positive, but you never know,” she said. “The devil is in the details.”
Prominent Saratoga developer Sonny Bonacio did not return a phone message seeking comment for this article.

But some residents have spoken out against the proposal at City Council meetings, saying the changes would allow for increased building density that the current zoning ordinance was intended to limit. Critics also predict the program will lead to higher costs and a need to increase staff at City Hall.


Housing study under way
More information about the need for an affordable-housing program may be revealed by a local housing and community study that is now under way and expected to wrap up in late September. The consulting firm GAR Associates of Amherst, N.Y., is conducting the study, which was commissioned in part by the City Council.

The inclusionary-zoning proposal will be sent back to the City Council after the city and county planning boards complete their reviews of the proposal this month. The council may then schedule public hearings on the proposal.

Supporters say more than 400 communities in 17 states currently have some kind of inclusionary zoning in place to promote affordable housing.

The city of Burlington, Vt., for example, adopted its program in 1990. The program applies to all new market-rate developments of five or more homes and to any converted non-residential structures that result in at least 10 housing units. The affordable housing set-aside is 15 percent to 25 percent of the units, depending on the average price of the market-rate homes, and Burlington also allows developers to use any density bonus for commercial purposes in mixed-use developments.

In Saratoga Springs, Yepsen pointed to signs that the city’s housing supply is becoming too expensive for people in jobs with comparatively modest wages.

“What we’re looking at, and one of my goals is lower- to middle-income housing,” Yepsen said. “There’s a gap, and we’re missing that. If we don’t do something about it soon, our community is not going to be as strong in the future. We’ll start losing people.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development defines “affordable housing” as housing for which occupants pay no more than 30 percent of their income for gross housing costs, including utilities. One-third of Saratoga Springs residents now spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, according to the 2010-14 American Community Survey Report of the U.S. Census Bureau. Of those exceeding the affordability threshold, about 24 percent are homeowners and 44 percent are renters.

Yepsen said the City Council could make a final decision on the inclusionary-zoning proposal by the end of the year.

If the plan is approved in its current form, Moran said it could result in construction of 20 to 30 new units of affordable housing annually.