Barton Commons opens as demand for workforce housing soars
By Chris Bosak
Published 12:00 am, Sunday, May 7, 2017
NEW MILFORD — Mark and Alissa Marabito ate free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cones as they discussed their new home at the official grand opening of Barton Commons, a mixed-income residential development in downtown New Milford.
The Marabitos know how lucky they are and appreciate their fortune. More than 400 applications poured in for Barton Commons’ 38 units. The waiting list is more than 300 names long.
Mark Marabito, 23, is a software designer and Alissa, 22, is an illustrator. Many of their friends have fled Connecticut because they could not afford to buy a house or pay rent in the Nutmeg State.
“We had an apartment but they raised the rent too high. We looked at other places and the rent was too high and they weren’t very nice,” Mark Marabito said. “We wanted to stay in the area because our families are here. We didn’t want to have to move away because she’d have to find all new clients.” Alissa added: “I heard about this place and it seemed too good to be true. Without this place, we probably would have had to move away like a lot of our friends.”
The mix of residents who attended the event also included a certified nursing assistant and single mom, an elderly woman on disability, and a woman who was homeless for a time after her husband died and the bank foreclosed on the family house. The melting pot highlighted the need for more mixed-income, also known as workforce or affordable, housing in the state.
“It’s very rewarding work,” said Marc Daigle of Dakota Partners, which built Barton Commons and several other affordable housing complexes in New England. “For years we did straight condominium building in high-end towns, and that has its own rewards, but this is really rewarding and serves a need. Not everyone can afford $1,500 in rent. Everyone has a story.”
Dakota Partners recently built Village Green in Barnstable, Mass., and Daigle said 400 applications came in for 120 units. He said it demonstrated the need for affordable housing throughout New England.
“The demand is consistent everywhere we go,” Daigle said.
Workforce housing typically cost the tenant no more than 30 percent of household income. Rates are based on the local area median income, or AMI, and housing is aimed at residents earning less than 80 percent of the AMI. AMI in Litchfield County, which includes New Milford, is $89,900, while affordable housing in neighboring Brookfield, which is part of Fairfield County, is based on an AMI of $108,000.
To encourage the building of affordable housing, several state agencies — including the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority and Connecticut Department of Housing — offer financing to developers in the form of low-interest loans or tax credits. State agencies also administer the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to qualifying developments.
“It’s something that’s a debated issue but workforce housing is greatly needed in Connecticut. It makes dreams come true,” Evonne Klein, commissioner of the state Department of Housing, said. “The funding that is provided is critical in getting these projects done.”
Bank of America also provided financing for Barton Commons.
High cost of living
HallKeen Management manages several affordable housing communities, including Barton Commons and Laurel Hill in Brookfield. It also manages Kimberly Place in Danbury. HallKeen does the vetting process for applicants to make sure they are earning steady income. Tenants are recertified each year and, after the initial acceptance, cannot earn more than 140 percent of the local AMI to remain in the complex.
Adam Goldberg, property manager for Barton Commons and Laurel Hill, said applications came in quickly for Barton Commons and people continue to call.
“The phone rings off the hook. There’s a huge demand for this type of housing,” he said. “With the rental market on fire, a lot of people just can’t afford it.”
New Milford Mayor David Gronbach said Barton Commons is “something we can point to as a success story.”
“There’s a crisis in Connecticut where jobs can’t support the cost of living,” Gronback said.
Economists say the high cost of living, including housing costs, is a major reason why Connecticut was one of eight states that lost population in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The median rent in Connecticut in 2015 was $1,108, compared to the U.S. median rent of $959, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Rents in southwestern Connecticut are typically higher. Stamford us among the top 10 in the country with average rental rates of more than $2,000, according to a CNN Money survey.
“Many people have steady, decent jobs, but can’t afford that,” Daigle said. “(Workforce housing) is a good opportunity for them.”
Barton Commons was the revitalization of the historic Barton House. Built in 1861, it was the home of Sen. Andrew Mygatt and later Miss Barton’s Day Care and Kindergarten and later a bed and breakfast. The original facade of the house has been retained along with other architectural components throughout the first building.
The complex includes studio and two-bedroom units, with some offered at market rate and others at workforce rate.
“We put a lot of time, hard work and dedication into this development and we believe our efforts have paid off,” Roberto Arista of Dakota Partners said. “Economic, demographic and social diversity strengthen a community and workforce income housing is a vehicle to make that happen.”
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