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Study: Room to improve in Fairfield County affordable housing plans

A few of the 18 new affordable housing units built by Greenwich at Armstrong Court.
A few of the 18 new affordable housing units built by Greenwich at Armstrong Court.

In a new analysis of 17 Fairfield County towns’ affordable housing plans, the median community received a ranking of 2.5 out of 5, showing scattered progress for many towns and room for improvement on equity and other issues in others.

The plans, which were supposed to be submitted to the state in June, marked an important test of whether towns would take seriously the task of addressing Connecticut’s affordable housing need. The need has mounted to more than 85,000 units for its lowest-income residents.

Town officials and residents, particularly in Fairfield County, have resisted land use reform proposals, calling for more local control. Earlier this month, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Stefanowski joined those cries, proposing the removal of one of the state’s foremost tools to aid in the creation of affordable housing.

The results of the Fairfield County Center for Housing Opportunity’s analysis of Southwestern Connecticut towns’ plans show a mixed bag. Darien’s plan, which was posted online earlier this week, wasn’t available in time to be included in the analysis, according to the Thursday report.

Stamford scored 4 out of 5, the highest-ranked town. Sherman and New Fairfield scored 1 out of 5.

“It really gives us an opportunity to see where towns are making strides … and where they’re lacking,” said Melissa Kaplan-Macey, Connecticut director at the Regional Plan Association. “It helps us in determining recommended policies.”

The association and related group DesegregateCT have advocated for statewide land use reform such as policies to encourage more development near public transit stations.

“I think this is a tremendous opportunity to move the region towards affordability,” said Christie Stewart, director of the Fairfield County Center for Housing Opportunity. "I think it provides a baseline and a foundation over the course of the next four to five years. … I think it’s a huge step forward for the region.”

While the report noted bright spots — for example, Westport’s proposal of an affordable housing trust fund and Stamford’s efforts to include residents in the planning process — few towns offered plans that included closer looks at their needs, such as a housing needs analysis, an analysis of barriers to fair housing, or a regional or state housing market analysis.

The Western Council of Governments released a draft plan in the spring that included a housing assessment for the towns in its jurisdiction, which includes many in Fairfield County. The plan also included suggestions criticized by advocates for reinforcing segregation.

The Regional Planning Association and other housing experts also have published research and data on the housing needs and markets in Fairfield County.

Towns that leaned heavily on the WestCOG plan tended to score lower, Stewart said.

Most plans also lacked actions explicitly related to equity, the report says. Examples could be training for staff or local real estate agents to avoid racial steering, or the practice of pushing buyers to certain homes because of their race, or creating fair rent commissions to address excessive rent raises, Kaplan-Macey said.

The Connecticut Association of Realtors developed a course recently on racial bias, which agents are required to take as part of their relicensing requirements.

Not all towns started on even footing, the report acknowledges. For example, some have staffed planning and zoning departments while others do not.

“Regardless of the strength or weakness of a community’s plan, the implementation of each — or lack thereof — will ultimately determine its value,” the report says. “A community’s plan may include a terrific list of proposed actions, none of which move out of the idea stage. On the contrary, another community’s plan may include just three concrete actions to create more homes, yet all are implemented in full within the next five years.”

The rankings were based on several broad factors including the plan submission, the planning process, needs assessments, and action and implementation.

A 2017 law required towns to submit affordable housing plans every five years. The first of those plans was due in June, but fewer than half of the state’s municipalities made the deadline.

As of a Sept. 14 data release from the state, 114 towns had submitted their plans.

“We have communicated to the towns that have not submitted their Affordable Housing Plan as required under Connecticut General Statute 8-30j that they are required to submit those plans,” said Chris Collibee, the Office of Policy and Management spokesman, in an email. “The state statute does not provide a remedy to force towns to submit plans to the state.”

New Fairfield has developed a Housing Opportunities Committee, which began meeting over the summer. The committee is tasked with producing an annual report that includes recommendations for developing a broader range of housing opportunities, among other tasks.

The town is also at a disadvantage compared to other communities because of its resources, said Khris Hall, a New Fairfield selectman.

“New Fairfield is like a lot of small towns in that we don’t have professional staff to do the kind of planning that would have put us in a better spot on affordable housing,” Hall said. “The committee that has gotten underway is seriously pursuing how to best tailor more housing opportunities for New Fairfield.”

Sherman First Selectman Don Lowe said the town had done “exactly as asked” in developing its plan.

“I'm not impressed with the process that gave us this grade, nor am I impressed with this cynical affordable housing effort that lumps Sherman, population 3,600, in with cities such as Stamford,” Lowe said in a written statement.

Stewart said the analysis didn’t intend to rank towns against one another but to evaluate the planning of each individual town.

Lowe went on to criticize 8-30g, a separate law related to affordable housing in Connecticut that provides court remedies to developers who are denied permission to build affordable housing in towns. Towns are exempt from the law if they have at least 10% of their units designated affordable.

CT169Strong’s response to the report also included criticism of 8-30g. The response came from Alexis Harrison, a Fairfield planning and zoning commissioner and CT169 organizer.

Sean Ghio, policy director at Partnership for Strong Communities, emphasized that the two policies are separate laws.

“I think the challenge is to find means to affordably house your neighbors, the residents of your town and the residents of your region,” Ghio said. “The planning exercise is not how to get out from under 8-30g.”

Harrison’s emailed statement also criticized the report for its methodology, calling it “misguided” and “subjective,” and saying it didn’t take into account market factors such as Fairfield County’s proximity to New York City and “unfairly and publicly blames” towns.

“If a truly objective grading system for Affordable Housing plans were possible, the legislature would have likely included that in the legislation,” Harrison’s statement read.

The group 169Strong has opposed land use reform proposals at the state legislature, saying members support local control.

The report’s methodology came largely from a Connecticut Department of Housing publication that provided guidance to towns on developing their plans, Stewart said.

“It’s not about how many units or how much housing. It’s about did you make a good-faith effort to utilize best planning practices in the way that the state asked you to,” Stewart added.

Despite citing areas for improvement in the report, many comments from affordable housing experts who worked on the report were positive.

“It was really good to see that some communities did go above and beyond,” Kaplan-Macey said.

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