Politicos: Creativity needed to meet town's housing goals

State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, and state Sen. Tony Hwang R-28, talk with residents before the start of a forum on affordable housing Monday. Fairfield,CT. 9/20/17
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, and state Sen. Tony Hwang R-28, talk with residents before the start of a forum on affordable housing Monday. Fairfield,CT. 9/20/17Genevieve Reilly / Hearst Connecticut Media

FAIRFIELD — The town needs to be more creative in finding ways to meet affordable housing needs, Housing Authority Director Carol Martin said at a recent forum.

State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, and state Sen. Tony Hwang, R-28, sponsored Monday’s forum at McKinley School to give an update on changes to the state’s affordable housing regulations. On the panel with them was Martin, and Mark Barnhart, the town’s Community and Economic Development director.

Martin pointed to the recent redevelopment of the Pine Tree senior housing as an example.

“At Pine Tree, we have a public-private partnership, that is taking advantage of a federal low-income housing tax credit program,” Martins said. “It’s the first in Fairfield to use the program.”

The federal program looks to attract corporations to invest into projects like Pine Tree. In exchange for upfront cash at the building project’s start, Martin said, the corporation gets 10 years of tax credits, once the buildings are occupied.

“We’ve got to start taking advantage of other options,” Martin said, and one idea might be to expand the Housing Authority’s role because relying on private developers alone will not get the town to the 10 percent threshold needed to be exempt from the 8-30g affordable housing law.

“I think the town has much to be proud of in terms of its history,” Barnhart said, adding the changes pushed by Hwang and Kupchick could be helpful in meeting goals, like a moratorium on 8-30g.

The state statute allows developers who “set aside” a percentage of housing units for affordable housing to basically ignore underlying zoning and build more units than normally allowed under local regulations. The onus is then put on the town, should it deny the project, to prove it would be harmful to the town.

A town is exempt from 8-30g if 10 percent of its housing stock qualifies as affordable, or it has been approved for a moratorium.

According to Barnhart, about 30 communities in Connecticut are exempt from the affordable housing laws. “The number hasn’t really changed,” he said. “If the goal is to get everyone to 10 percent, and no one can achieve the goal, what’s the point of the goal.”

For a moratorium, two percent of a town’s housing units, based on the last census, would need to be qualified as affordable.

Unfortunately for Fairfield, Barnhart said, it was proactive and created several affordable housing developments, all prior to 1990. Only units built after 1990 count toward a community’s point total.

“In Fairfield, given the size of the community, it’s a pretty big lift,” Barnhart said. And each new market-rate housing development puts that goal further out of reach.

He said the town would need to accumulate 433 housing points to qualify for a moratorium. “The town doesn’t get credit for being an early leader,” Barnhart said. “Most recently, our estimate is we have roughly 183 points toward that moratorium goal of 433.”

Barnhart said there are about 137 points assigned to projects under construction, another 44 points for projects approved but not yet started, and another 117 or so for projects that are planned but still winding their way through the approval process.

Points are assigned depending on the type of housing built — more points for a three-bedroom unit then for, say, a studio apartment for the elderly.

“Not only do you have to have the units built, but occupied,” Barnhart said. “I wish it were sooner, but we’re probably a year and a half to two years out from applying for a moratorium.” However, he said, they have begun compiling the documentation needed by the state.

“We’re not going to get to the numbers if we stay still,” Hwang said. And the changes adopted that allow for bonus points, and longer moratoriums, don’t fix the problem overnight, he said.

“We’re not giving in,” said Kupchick, who is the ranking member on the state legislature’s housing committee. Kupchick was instrumental in the getting the changes adopted.

“Having grown up in this town, and watching (the late First Selectman) Jacky Durrell being someone who was a strong advocate for affordable housing before there was an 8-30g,” Kupchick said, she will keep fighting. “None of those units count. Two hundred and sixteen units in Fairfield don’t count under the statute. It’s not fair.”

She said they should be talking to the Town Plan and Zoning Commission about putting deed restrictions on accessory apartments so they can be counted toward the town’s goal.