Housing panel weighs what's affordable in Fairfield ... and where

The town's Affordable Housing Committee asked for comments on a draft version of its updated Affordable Housing Plan and that's what the panel got Wednesday night.

Kathy Braun, a Representative Town Meeting member, urged the committee to be careful in language in the plan. "I would be very cautious in how you word things," she said. "You don't want to make it sound like we don't have (affordable housing) when we do."

Braun and Sasco Hill Road resident Bud Morten both said the town probably has more affordable housing options than those counted by the state, which says that less than 3 percent of the local housing inventory meets affordable criteria.

"I would suggest everyone may be wrong in that respect," said Morten, whose words echoed those in a flyer distributed by the Fairfield Taxpayer group. "We may have enough affordable housing in Fairfield or the region," he said, and the town needs to determine "what is the optimal mix of housing for Fairfield."

Another attendee suggested there is a considerable number of houses on the market in Fairfield for less than $300,000.

The draft plan contains 10 action items that the committee recommends the town pursue, including a goal of providing at least another 100 affordable units by 2024. To be eligible for affordable housing, income for a family of four cannot exceed $63,900 -- 80 percent of the local average median income of $83,700. For the state to count a housing unit as affordable, not only does the rent or purchase price have to meet certain guidelines, the property must also be deed-restricted.

The goal of the plan, and its recommendations, committee Chairman Steve Grathwohl said, is for the town to control its destiny and not be forced into accepting high-density housing built by for-profit developers under the 8-30 (g) state statute. Under that law, the burden is on the town to prove that a development with "affordable" set-asides is a threat to health and safety, should it deny the developer's application. To be exempt from that statute, 10 percent of the town's housing stock must be considered affordable. In Fairfield, that number is only 2.6 percent.

"The elephant in the room is 8-30 (g)," said Glenn Chalder, president of Planimetrics, the firm which helped the committee to update its plan. "Without a diverse housing stock, Fairfield is subject to 8-30 (g)." That means, he said, that unless the town takes steps to increase its affordable housing units, developers may do it "in places and ways we may not want."

Fairfield has done that in the past, he said, such as when it purchased the former Navy housing off Reef Road, or created the owner-built housing on Nordstrand Avenue. Adding another 100 units over the next 10 years will double what the town has accomplished in the last 10 years, Chalder said. "Maybe we can do more," he said, "but this is a step in the right direction."

Community and Economic Development Director Mark Barnhart said those 100 additional units don't necessarily have to be new construction. It could be achieved, he said, by changing zoning to require that accessory apartments be deed-restricted as affordable; by acquiring existing housing, or a local senior tax-relief program that grants more tax relief in exchange for deed-restrictions.

RTM member Carol Pontrelli said some of the action steps "don't have a lot of specifics," and without knowing the location of new affordable housing, "we don't know how to evaluate the feasibility. If you don't specify all the locations, you don't know the impact."

Barnhart said the town can't take a one-size-fits-all approach, because not all options would work everywhere in town.

Pontrelli also provided a map, a copy of which was included in the Taxpayer group's flyer, that showed the density of housing in Fairfield, important information that RTM member Gaylord Meyer said was missing from the Affordable Housing Plan.

"We should be guided by the spirit of having affordable housing," said RTM member David MacKenzie, "but make sure as we do it we don't change the character of the town."

Resident Jeremy Hood said there should be an eleventh action item added to the plan -- the repeal or modification of 8-30 (g), which he said is essentially an unfunded state mandate.

David Sturges said the town needs to preserve smaller homes and push back on the real estate market that is driving those homes to be torn down and "McMansions" built in their place.

Other actions recommended in the draft affordable housing plan are:

- obtain an initial moratorium from 8-30 (g).

- establish a housing fund through creation of an inclusionary housing fee imposed on all zoning permits for new building construction or additions. The fund would be use to support housing initiatives.

- update accessory apartment regulations.

- adopt an inclusionary zoning regulation, requiring any new development to include affordable housing units, or a pay a fee into the housing fund.

- adopt an incentive housing zone.

The draft plan, which still needs to be reviewed by the Board of Selectmen, can be found on the town's website, www.fairfieldct.org, on the Affordable Housing Committee's page. Barnhart said the committee is still accepting comments, questions or suggestions from residents.