How should Fairfield create more affordable housing?

A town committee asked residents that question Tuesday night as it updates the town's affordable housing plan, which dates to 1988. Officials also note that Fairfield fails to comply with a state mandate that says 10 percent of housing in a municipality should be affordable to residents who earn 80 percent of the state or area median income, whichever is less.

If a municipality doesn't comply with that 10 percent threshold, developers can bypass local zoning regulations by proposing an affordable housing development under a controversial state law known as 8-30g. "The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the whole issue of the affordable housing appeals procedure," Glenn Chalder, a planning consultant from Simsbury working for the town's Affordable Housing Committee, told about 50 residents in the Education Center, 501 Kings Highway East.

Chalder said if Fairfield can find ways to create more affordable housing, the town has a better chance to control its own destiny and not be forced to bear the burden of proof if it tries to deny a developer's affordable housing application.

Mark Barnhart, director of the town's Office of Community and Economic Development, agreed. "It's really a choice between the town seizing control of its destiny and creating the future it wants, or waiting on a developer to determine it," he said. "I think that's the choice that's before us and that's the whole purpose of this effort."

Tom McCarthy, one of several Representative Town Meeting members in the audience, said, "I like the idea of us being masters of our own destiny ... Being proactive is the way to go."

Fairfield has about 20,000 housing units, and 567, or 2.8 percent, are deemed affordable under the state's definition, according to Chalder. He said Fairfield's percentage of affordable housing is among the lowest of municipalities with a similar population (60,000) and that other communities have found ways to increase the local inventory of affordable housing.

During the two-hour meeting, attendees broke into groups of five to eight, and then reviewed a chart that listed ways other towns created more affordable housing. Chalder asked each group to identify via check marks whether its members strongly support, somewhat support, strongly do not support or somewhat do not support each of those options.

The ways that gained most of the support include:

- Require that a housing developer in Fairfield provide some affordable units in the project, or deposit money into an affordable housing fund.

- Require that any new zoning permit in Fairfield include a fee that would be deposited into an affordable housing fund.

- Allow accessory apartments either to be added to existing housing units or be detached units, such as a carriage house.

- Work to preserve the town's 567 affordable housing units so their affordable status does not expire in the future.

- Have the town be involved in creating more assisted housing developments in new locations.

- Have the Town Plan and Zoning Commission adopt regulations for "incentive housing" developments. Such developments would have to comply with local zoning regulations and 20 percent of the units would be classified as affordable housing for 30 years.

Residents strongly did not support allowing the town to remain subject to the 8-30 statute, under which developers could propose "set-aside developments" in most areas of Fairfield. Set-aside developments would not have to comply with town zoning regulations and would require that 30 percent of units be affordable for 40 years.

Barnhart said increasing the town's stock of affordable housing would not necessarily mean new construction. He said deed restrictions could be placed on existing dwellings and the town might be able to gain credit for an "in-law apartment" or low-rent apartment that didn't have a deed restriction or financial assistance from the state.

One problem with deed restrictions cited by attendees is that the owner can't recoup money spent improving the property because it would have to be sold at an affordable price.

Tuesday's forum did not focus entirely on increasing the town's stock of affordable housing to comply with the state mandate.

Chalder also noted that Fairfield's population is aging and asked residents to also think about housing more affordable and suitable for older residents. He said the median price of a house in Fairfield is nearly $500,000, which he said is expensive not only for seniors who pay taxes on those properties, but for younger people who want to buy homes.

Attendees also indicated support for keeping older adults in their homes by expanding the town's senior tax relief program and providing more services to seniors, such as Meals-on-Wheels, Dial-a-Ride, social services, home maintenance and snow removal.

Tuesday's meeting was not without controversy. Several attendees said their understanding of the housing-options chart, particularly when it came to changing zoning regulations, may be misinterpreted and they want more opportunities to talk about ways to increase affordable housing.

Barnhart said residents would have those opportunities and that he understands a method to increase affordable housing in one neighborhood might not work in another. "We're trying to start a conversation. This is not the end of the conversation," he said.

Barnhart said he would gladly meet with neighborhood groups and that all meetings of the Affordable Housing Committee are open to the public.

Stephen Grathwohl, the Affordable Housing Committee chairman, said the group meets on the second Wednesday of each month at 7 p.m. in old Town Hall. Grathwohl asked to be notified ahead of time if a large group plans to attend a meeting because the room seats only about 20 people.

Barnhart added the Affordable Housing Committee is "not an implementing authority" in terms of any new policies, and that town officials are "a long way from actually implementing anything, other than what we're currently doing."