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Can Fairfield afford to be more 'affordable?' Panel to explore housing options

Just as two "affordable" housing complexes are now under construction in town, and two more have been proposed, the Affordable Housing Committee is in the midst of updating Fairfield's 25-year-old Affordable Housing Plan.

Mark Barnhart, community and economic development director, gave an overview of the process to the Town Plan and Zoning Commission last week. And a public workshop on potential strategies to increase the local inventory of affordable housing will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Board of Education administrative office, 501 Kings Highway East.

"We'll look back at things the town has done over the years," Barnhart said. "Some have worked quite well, others not so well."

The undertaking, he said, requires an understanding of the state's 8-30g statute, a law used by those proposing affordable -- and not so affordable -- housing in town.

As long as a certain percentage of the proposed units are deed-restricted as "affordable" -- as defined in that law -- the overall density of a project can increase over the usual limit, with the burden of proof falling on the municipality, and not the developer, should such the zoning applications be denied.

Right now, a 12-unit complex has been approved for Campfield Drive and a 52-unit apartment building is going up on Fairchild Avenue, with banners advertising that leasing will start shortly. A controversial application for 96 apartments on lower Bronson Road, near Interstate 95, is awaiting a vote from the Inland Wetlands Agency, while the TPZ will have a hearing in April for another 33-unit complex for two parcels on Berwick Court and Fairchild Avenue.

"We do have a fairly diverse housing stock," Barnhart said, but 85 percent of Fairfield's housing comprises single-family, detached units. To be exempt from the 8-30g provisions, a municipality's affordable housing must represent 10 percent of its overall housing stock. In Fairfield, that number now is 2 percent.

"So we would need 1,300 to 1,400 deed-restricted units in town to meet the 10 percent threshold," TPZ Commissioner Jim Kennelly said.

And the reality, Barnhart said, is a town that is mostly developed, like Fairfield, will not be able to reach that threshold through new construction.

"We're not going to be building ourselves out of this," he said. "I don't think that's realistic. I also don't think the 10 percent goal is realistic or attainable."

State officials put a premium on family or rental housing, Barnhart said, awarding two points for each unit. A single family home gets one point.

TPZ Chairman Matthew Wagner asked if anything is being done in Hartford to amend or repeal the law.

"There are efforts, usually every year" during regular sessions of the General Assembly, Barnhart said, but added, "They always fall short of the necessary votes."

What the Fairfield Affordable Housing Commitee will be looking at, he said, is whether they can get housing that already exists included in the state's calculations. Read Full Article 

"They don't count anything prior to 1990," Barnhart said, nor do they count facilities like the homeless shelter. "There are a number of congregate living facilities that we don't get credit for; there's a number of affordable housing units in town we don't get credit for because it's not deed-restricted. Every little bit does count, and we should be credited for the work we've done."

In Trumbull, Barnhart said, the town was able to include accessory apartments in their calculations, making the town eligible for a four-year moratorium on affordable housing.

Part of the committee's task, Barnhart said, will be to make sure all affordable housing in town is properly documented. He said apartments for seniors, like Trefoil and Pine Tree, should be included in the count.

The town has 47 units of "affordable ownership" properties, a total of 266 units for the elderly and disabled, 19 units of permanent supportive housing and 21 deed-restricted, multi-family rental units.

Wagner asked if there is a way the town can petition officials in Hartford to include earlier housing stock in the calculations.

"We haven't gotten there yet," Barnhart said, "but that's one of the issues. If it doesn't fall within one of the categories, we get the `our hands are tied' response."

He said, however, he does plan on having some conversations with staff in Hartford. "Usually, there are always some gray areas," he said.

In 2012, the median sales price for a home in Fairfield was $521,500, which would need a qualifying income of $128,255. The median household income was $118,476.

In the case of the newest apartments proposed for Fairchild and Berwick, 30 percent of the units will be deed restricted. Of those, 15 percent would be rented to those whose income is less than or equal to 60 percent of the town's median income, and the balance would be rented to those whose income is 80 percent of the median income.

According to data supplied by Berwick Fairchild & Associates with its application, the maximum rent for a two-bedroom unit for a family earning less than 60 percent of the median income is $1,045; at 80 percent of the median income the maximum rental is $1,356.

The Housing and Urban Development website lists the median income limits for 2013 for the Bridgeport area, which includes Fairfield, in these categories: extremely low, or 30 percent, of the median income; very low, or 50 percent of the median, and low, or 80 percent of the median. For two people, annual income cannot exceed $21,100 to qualify for "extremely low" income house. At 50 percent of the median, or "very low," a two-person annual income cannot exceed $35,200, while the income limit at 80 percent of the median for two people is $51,500. Income limits increase with the size of a family.

In metro areas in Connecticut, HUD lists the median income at $86,700.

Genevieve Reilly

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