Development brings much-needed affordable housing to Guilford neighborhood

GUILFORD – Longtime residents driving on State Street north of the turnpike couldn't help but notice major changes in early April 2021 – a new neighborhood of energy-efficient houses, all priced to be affordable to would-be homeowners.

The 10-unit community has been under way on a 12-acre lot at 376 State St., a half-mile from the town center. By summer, the first pair of the new cottages – each to range from 1,300 to 1,700 square feet in size – was expected to be ready for occupancy.

The project is known as the Great Hill Cottage Community and is to include a solar photovoltaic array allowing the homes to produce as much energy as they consume, saving hundreds of dollars in annual utility expenses for the homeowners who inhabit them.

That effort has been intended to meet the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Net Zero Energy Ready” program standards. But it's just part of the developer's mission.

“Guilford is a community that on some level embraces diversity and is eager to promote diversity,” said Chris Widmer, president of Guilford-based Green Planet Company. The 501(c)3 nonprofit is dedicated to creating affordable and sustainably designed homeownership projects in the Town of Guilford and the surrounding New Haven county area.

To gain a broad outreach in locating tenants, Green Planet has worked with Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven, another nonprofit agency that works to increase homeownership and rehabilitate houses for people who need technical or financial assistance.

More information about Green Planet Co. is available at greenplanetco.org, and information about Neighborhood Housing Services of New Haven may be found at nhsofnewhaven.org.

The design created for the Great Hill Cottage Community takes advantage of the area's scenic wooded setting, and imposes as light a footprint as possible, said Widmer, whose training as a licensed architect brought him into the affordable-housing market more than a quarter-century ago.

Features include lighting that's friendly to night-sky viewing, gravel drives and a timber-bridge stream crossing. A pond on the site is to be restored to provide a healthy habitat for birds and aquatic life, Widmer said. Plans also include a common garden and screened pavilion built from site-harvested timber.

The Guilford project was inspired a few years ago when Widmer and his associates went on an exploratory trip to Concord, Massachusetts.

“We visited a project I fell in love with, based on the idea of smaller-footprint houses clustered closer together near the center of town, all with an ownership structure,” Widmer said. “The idea made sense for towns such as Guilford that need to address affordable-housing issues. It also made sense to us because, at the same time, we wanted to promote diversity.”

Widmer's other goals included the notion that Green Planet can and should continue to develop sustainable-energy “green” housing.

“I'm very interested in efficiency, sustainable energy and renewable energy, so we incorporated many passive home-design criteria into the design of the cottages – including making them airtight – while being flexible and realistic,” he said.

Yet another goal was to build the houses at a cost that would be at or slightly below the prevailing market.

“To do that, we prefabricated much of each hous off-site and used technologies and methods that are well tested, such as the use of recycled materials,” he said. “We believe this could be a model for similar projects in the future.”

Capital for Change began working with Green Planet in 2018, in time providing acquisition and predevelopment loans that permitted purchase of the Guilford site and an existing single-family home in disrepair, plus creation of the site plan.

Another loan from Capital for Change funded construction of the two new homeownership units of affordable housing, comprising the first phase of the eventual multi-phase project for construction of eight more homeownership units.

“Capital for Change has been instrumental in providing all of the funding for the project to date, which is sizable,” Widmer said. “They've been solidly behind the project and they're putting their money where their mouths are.”

“When Chris brought this to us, we were excited because it fitted exactly with the goals for certain funds we had just received,” said Carla Weil, director of commercial lending at Capital for Change.

Weil said the Connecticut Department of Housing had awarded the funds to Capital for Change to assist projects that would promote homeownership among residents who'd missed that experience.

“This has been a marriage made in heaven,” Weil said. “When we have a good partner like this, we really want to facilitate it and make their project a reality. Chris has been on target with all of the goals we're trying to achieve.”

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