* Chart source: Center for Housing Opportunity

By John Schwing and Ginny Monk, CTMirror.org

A “pocket neighborhood” that officials say may be an option to increase Westport’s stock of affordable housing, as portrayed in the town’s state-mandated affordable housing report.

In a new analysis of 17 Fairfield County towns’ affordable housing plans, Westport fared better than most communities, tying for third place overall with a score of 3 out of 5 points on the survey.

The survey, conducted by the Center for Housing Opportunity, showed scattered progress for some municipalities and room for improvement on equity and other issues in others.

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

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

Westport tops among neighbors

Stamford’s plan, according to the survey criteria, was ranked first with a score of 4 out of 5, while the northerly county communities of Sherman and New Fairfield were at the bottom, with scores of 1 out of 5.

Compared with neighboring suburbs, Westport was top ranked, trying with Fairfield at 3 out of 5, and above Weston at 2.5 points and Wilton at 1.5.

Westport adopted its five-year affordable plan in June after a months-long series of public forums, with the Planning and Zoning Commission leading the effort. A 47-page draft was posted on the town’s website in May, and the public was invited to weigh in on the proposal before it was approved.

From the start, local officials, led by Planning and Zoning Commission Chairwoman Danielle Dobin, set a goal of preparing a plan that would allow Westport to control as much of the process as possible, rather than ceding it to state regulations such as the controversial 8-30g law.

Westport affordable housing plan highlights

• Deed-restricting town-owned rental properties.

• Creating a new community of affordable units on a portion of state-owned land off West Parish Road.

• Establishing an Affordable Housing Trust.

• Issuing permits for 225 multi-family units — 70 deemed affordable — on projects brought under the state’s 8-30g legislation, which gives developers leeway in towns such as Westport that have less than 10 percent of their housing stock deemed affordable.

• Acquiring land for future affordable housing development.

• Eliminating zoning barriers in the Inclusionary Housing Zone.

• Adopting a new district for existing affordable housing with flexible parking requirements.

• Exploring the process to “buy down” market rate units.

• Exploring opportunities for greater density in residential districts.

• Encouraging sustainably designed modular and prefabricated housing.

Resistance includes calls for 8-30g repeal

Town officials and residents, particularly elsewhere 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 repeal of the 8-30g law.

The survey “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.”

Westport plan for “affordable housing trust” cited

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. 

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

Westport’s proposal, for instance, was largely based on local planning and suggestions.

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, such as Westport, while others do not.

It all comes down to “implementation”

“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.”

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.”

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

Study’s findings faulted

The report was criticized by CT169Strong, a group that has opposed land-use reform proposals at the state legislature, calling instead for local control.

In a response from Alexis Harrison, a Fairfield planning and zoning commissioner and CT169 organizer, the group faulted the report for its methodology, calling it “misguided” and “subjective.” The report also failed to take into account market factors such as Fairfield County’s proximity to New York City and “unfairly and publicly blames” towns, the group contends.

“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 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.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.