By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — The first donation to the new Westport Affordable Housing Trust Fund — an anonymous $10,000 gift — was accepted by the Board of Selectwomen last week.

Fees to bolster the fund, which was set up to help the town develop more affordable housing, are soon expected to be required of anyone issued a zoning permit in Westport.

A proposed ordinance to charge 0.5 percent, or $5 for every $1,000 spent on construction costs for zoning permits, will be reviewed Tuesday and Wednesday by Representative Town Meeting committees, and considered for adoption by the full RTM on Feb. 6.

Money accrued in the fund can be used to purchase property to build affordable housing, buy units in housing projects to be rented or sold “down market,” or help nonprofit groups with affordable housing programs to develop units, according to Matthew Mandell, a District 1 RTM member and chairman of the RTM Planning and Zoning Committee

Mandell has served on two state subcommittees on the issue of affordable housing, and believes that Westport, using the new Affordable Housing Fund and other incentives, can “certainly shine” among towns in the state addressing the problem, he said. Several other communities, most of them in Fairfield County, have previously established similar funds to promote affordable housing initiatives.

Mandell and Seth Braunstein, a District 6 RTM member, sponsored the ordinance to establish the local Affordable Housing Trust Fund. 

In addition to generating revenue from permit fees or donations, the fund can derive resources from grants and loans.

Westport is “already committed” to helping those who are less fortunate in several ways, including with housing, Mandell said. Westport will meet state requirements, “but we will do it on our own terms,” such as creating the housing fund.

Every municipality in the state must adopt a five-year affordable housing plan, according to state law 8-30j. Westport adopted its plan in June 2022, and formally set up the fund last October as one of the initiatives it hopes will help achieve the goal to provide more affordable housing in town.

The concept of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund has been discussed over the past few years by the Planning and Zoning Commission and staff, according to Danielle Dobin, who was the P&Z chairwoman at that time and is currently a Board of Finance member.

“There was a lot of discussion … how do we make this work?” she said. There were concerns about how and who could use the funds to build or purchase housing, but others worried that a too conservative approach might mean the fund would never be used — as has been the case with the town’s open space fund, Dobin said. “There’s quite a bit of money in it, but it’s never spent,” she said.

The proposed ordinance to codify the “inclusionary housing fee” into law already met with some opposition when it was discussed at a Planning and Zoning Commission meeting in December. 

The fee schedule was approved by the P&Z in a split vote, and recommended for final approval by the RTM. Some P&Z members questioned the purpose of the ordinance, and said the fee could add to costs of developing property, even for a single house, and also worried about how money accrued in the fund would be used. 

Even if the fee ordinance fails to win RTM approval, the fund can still receive donations. 

Selectwoman Andrea Moore, who read the resolution to accept the $10,000 donation to the fund at the Board of Selectwomen’s meeting, thanked the anonymous donor “for their generous gift” to help provide more Westport residents with affordable housing. Her thanks were echoed by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker and Selectwoman Candice Savin.

Dobin said she is “proud of the town” for creating the fund and the proposed fee structure to make it work, and looks forward to what she hopes will be RTM approval of the zoning fee. “There are all these possibilities” for using the money to create affordable housing indifferent ways, she said.

“It will be interesting to see where it goes,” she added.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman and has taught journalism at New York and Southern Connecticut State universities.