Fairfield Making Progress on Affordable Housing Front

Will the development of “affordable housing” boost the local economy by bringing more employees and consumers to the local market? Will it increase traffic or overburden infrastructure in other ways? The extent of these and other effects depend significantly on the quality of the design. Municipalities like Fairfield have ways to guide development regarding these issues, but that ability is frequently compromised by the state’s law on affordable housing, known as 8-30g.

If a proposed affordable housing development is rejected by a local zoning commission, 8-30g offers the de- veloper a chance to overturn that decision via an appeal procedure unless either a) at least 10% of the housing stock of that municipality qualifies as “affordable” or b) the state has granted the municipality a temporary mor- atorium (on the appeal procedure) for having made progress toward the 10% threshold. According to the State Department of Housing, only 535 units or 2.5% of Fairfield’s housing stock qualifies as affordable housing. Moreover, while Fairfield has made progress in recent years, Town staff acknowledge that they are still short of the requirement to qualify for a moratorium.

Perhaps few municipalities are destined to be as challenged by 8-30g as Fairfield. Housing is expensive and Fairfield’s median income significantly exceeds that of the state (which is the basis of the “affordable” designation). Though not as dense as some big-city neighbors, Fairfield is much larger and more populous than many of its suburban counterparts, which is critical because the moratorium threshold is calculated at two percent of the total number of dwelling units (as of the last census). Thus, Fairfield (with its 21,648 housing units) needs a lot more affordable housing units to show progress than Westport (10,399) or Darien (7,074) need to show. As such, smaller towns have been able to qualify for a moratorium or two, while Fairfield has remained exposed to 8-30g’s appeal procedure.

Over the years, Fairfield has developed tools to nurture the better designs among the proposed affordable hous- ing developments. The latest tool is the Affordable Housing Trust Fund. The fund will be used to offer ad- vantages, such as low interest rate loans, to develop projects recommended by the town’s Affordable Housing Commission. The trust was created in 2018 and is funded by a permit fee of 0.5% on most new construction or building additions. The Fund currently has a balance of over half-million dollars, after allocating up to $300K towards its first project: the redevelopment of the former military housing site off Reef Road.

Fairfield may secure its first moratorium in time to see the rules change. The town has already approved proj- ects that include 137 affordable housing units, which will yield more than enough points to achieve a moratorium once those units are built. Meanwhile, five bills related to affordable housing were drafted for the 2020 state legislative session which was cut short in March due to COVID-19. Topics included giving the state more authority over municipal zoning regulation, requirements for new construction of affordable housing, first responders’ housing, and education funding incentives for municipalities that meet or exceed the affordable housing threshold. Affordable housing regulation is a controversial subject that may again get a lot of attention in Hartford in 2021.