Stung by affordable housing reversals, town plans to revamp program
Updated 5:59 pm, Thursday, February 7, 2013
After suffering two major reversals last year at the hands of housing developers, Fairfield officials plan to reboot the program to provide more affordable-housing units in town.
Since the town adopted an affordable-housing plan 25 years ago, Community and Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart told the Board of Selectmen on Wednesday that progress has been made -- but plenty of work remains.
"The needs haven't changed a great deal," Barnhart said, as he presented a proposal to update that original plan, first adopted during the then-First Selectman Jacquelyn Durrell's administration in the 1980s. The selectmen unanimously approved a resolution directing the Affordable Housing Committee to submit an updated plan by next January.
Barnhart said the town has made what he called "significant strides" in providing affordable housing for less-affluent residents, including the most recent -- rental units for seniors on Greenfield Street several years ago.
In the past 25 years, the town has also promoted affordable homes through "owner-built" projects where the future owners help build the units in lieu of a down payment, and purchased the former Navy housing complex off Reef Road and sold the homes to moderate-income residents.
Currently, the town has provided 47 units of owner-occupied housing, and 266 units of subsidized housing for the elderly and disabled in town.
There are also 19 units of supportive housing operated through Operation Hope, a nonprofit focusing on the homeless and transitional housing, and 21 multi-family rental units.
The town, however, has been successfully challenged by developers of affordable housing units in recent years because its total stock of affordable housing falls far short of state requirements.
The state sets a 10 percent threshold for affordable housing in its communities, but only 2.69 percent of the housing stock in Fairfield meets that criteria -- a figure that places the burden of proof on the town, not the developer, when disputes over affordable-housing projects go to court.
The town last summer was ordered by a Superior Court judge last summer to approve a 12-unit housing project, with four affordable units, on Campfield Drive, which the Town Plan and Zoning Commission had denied a year earlier.
In overturning the TPZ denial, the judge noted the record shows Fairfield has a substantial lack of affordable housing.
The town also last year settled a lawsuit with a developer who proposed building a 54-unit rental complex that would allot 27 units for low-income renters. That project had initially been denied by the TPZ last March, and was also later overturned by a court.
In addition to filing a lawsuit against the zoning denial, the developer, Garden Homes Management, also challenged the town's right for an annual allocation of Community Development block grant money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development because its commitment to affordable housing is "disingenuous."
In its attempt to block Community Development money for Fairfield, the developer said that of the 22 municipalities in Connecticut that receive the grants, Fairfield has the lowest percentage of affordable units -- 2 percent -- as measured by the state. The next lowest community, Greenwich, has 5 percent.
The plan to update Fairfield's affordable-housing program will include a look at what has been done to date, what the town's needs are and what tools are available to help meet those needs, Barnhart said Wednesday.
"Affordable housing is an important component of our community," First Selectman Michael Tetreau said, and contributes to the town's diversity. But, he added, it is a challenge when a town, like Fairfield, is "95 percent built out. You have to be a little bit more creative on how to approach this."
According to the Affordable Housing Committee's 2011 annual report, the median sales price of a home in town was $549,000, which requires income of $134,742 to purchase. The median household income locally, however, is $113,248. During 2011, there were only 56 single-family units in Fairfield that sold for less than $300,000.
Barnhart said the process of updating the affordable-housing plan will include a lot of public outreach and informational meetings.
"What I would love to see is not only an inventory of what we have but some measurable outcomes," said Selectman Cristin McCarthy Vahey.
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