O’Leary sees benefit in families without school-age kids
BY PENELOPE OVERTON REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
WATERBURY — With his kids grown and retirement looming, Bobby Zinno is starting to think about downsizing, swapping his big house in Watertown for something a little smaller and cheaper.
Zinno would like to move back to Waterbury, where he was born and raised, but the city can’t offer him what he wants: a nice, new small house in an age-restricted development that won’t break the bank.
“Some people want to go to Florida, but I want to stay here, close to family,” Zinno said. “I love Waterbury, and it has some nice neighborhoods, but taxes are too high to build the kind of place I want.”
That kind of talk captured the attention of Zinno’s childhood pal, Waterbury Mayor Neil M. O’Leary. He wants people like the Zinnos, who like to eat out, shop and go to the theater, to return to Waterbury.
And although O’Leary loves kids — he helped revive the Police Activities League in Waterbury — he understands the financial benefit of luring residents without young children back to Waterbury.
The city spends almost $14,000 to educate every student, which is far more money than most households pay in property taxes, making families without school-age children, like the Zinnnos, attractive to cash-strapped cities.
O’Leary believes the answer may lie in age-restricted communities, a housing trend that took the nation’s suburbs by storm about two decades ago, when baby boomers turned into empty nesters.
He wants to consider offering tax freezes on new construction in traditional retirement communities, similar to what the city is doing to encourage residential development downtown.
The city agreed to delay taxing the developers of the Brown Building, located on the edge of the City Green, on improvements made to the upper-story apartments for 15 years to facilitate the $13.2 million project.
O’Leary hasn’t worked out any of the details of how an age-restricted freeze might work, saying he wants to discuss the idea with developers and the city officials, but thinks it would be a home run for the city over time.
City Planner James Sequin said there are about 900 already approved housing units that have stalled for lack of financing or demand across Waterbury now. None of are age-restricted units, however.
“The properties aren’t doing anything for us now,” O’Leary said. “I think that delaying the tax benefit is worth it, at least for a while, if we can bring people back who will eat in our restaurants and shop at our businesses.”
Some say the age-restricted trend has peaked, noting that many projects have stalled, with lots unsold, at first because baby boomers didn’t downsize in the huge numbers expected and then because of the recession.
In suburbs like Wolcott, developers begged the towns to let them lift the age restrictions, saying the demand just wasn’t there anymore for upscale retiree housing, especially not in this recession.
Watercreek at Wolcott built only six of the 63 approved units when the bank foreclosed on it. Developer Keith Mahler of Waterbury bought it and went to court to eventually force the town to lift the age restrictions.
But age-restricted housing is still working in Oxford, where developments such as Oxford Greens and Meadow Brook Estates have fueled its population boom, which jumped 29 percent from 2000 to 2010.
Waterbury has only one age-restricted community, Woods Edge. But the 20-home project, off Beth Lane, stalled when the original developer, Half Moon Associates, went bankrupt, with only seven homes built.
In 2012, a Roxbury-based developer, The Corbo Group, bought Woods Edge. Principal Ralph Corbo owns several already-approved, but mostly unrealized, housing developments in Waterbury.