Protecting Fairfield’s affordability — and our neighborhoods
by Matt Waggner
Published in the Fairfield Sun, 5/30/2014
As a candidate for state representative, I often hear from our neighbors that while we value making the town more affordable, we also enjoy the personality of our residential neighborhoods as they are — after all, that’s why we chose to live here!
“McMansions” and inappropriate multi-unit complexes — erected over neighborhood objections — are creating anger and disillusionment among Fairfield residents, while the zoning board lacks the power to limit density until much more of our housing can be counted as affordable under state law.
Fortunately, we can rise to the challenge. As local legislators like Kim Fawcett and Jonathan Steinberg work to increase transit-oriented housing development, I’d like to offer another strategy to meet these affordability goals in a way that protects and strengthens our community.
Because current affordable housing laws only affect zoning decisions, we only ask whether a home or an apartment is affordable when it is being built. But, let’s be realistic: a house will seldom be affordable when it’s new. By making affordability a “new house” problem, the policy is mainly used by developers to evade our Town Plan. We need to have “old houses” in our toolbox to make affordability a productive part of our conversation.
As a legislator, I will offer legislation to empower towns like Fairfield to create “Hometown Character Affordable Housing” ordinances, giving us options to meet our affordable housing obligations with already-existing housing stock, and restore the power to fully regulate density to our zoning commissions.
Under this proposal, towns would be able to make agreements with homeowners to secure new deed restrictions on existing homes in exchange for one of three benefits:
• A waiver of property taxes for a number of years determined by each town, which would serve as an additional option for seniors seeking to remain in our community;
• A workforce housing grant to make it feasible for people like teachers and public safety employees to live in the community they serve, or
• A renovation grant to help extend the usable life of our housing stock and discourage the tear-downs which lead to McMansions.
Many towns offer senior property tax, workforce housing, and rehab programs. Exchanging these valuable benefits to get credit for housing which is already affordable can help us meet a pressing need without burdening homeowners or committing to new spending.
Towns that expand or newly establish such programs need not carry the cost alone. We can support these efforts with federal grant dollars, and by having the state match local commitments by allowing us to keep a larger amount of money from building permits or conveyance taxes in our community.
In the long term, a program like this would be flexible and financially self-sufficient, as a town which “buys” an affordable housing credit with a grant could “sell” it back for twice the original value if the market conditions make it attractive to do so. As the market improves, reinvesting in two new units for each one returned would allow affordable units to grow when they are needed most.
I appreciate all the input I’ve received about this issue, and will keep offering new solutions to our most persistent problems. I’m not just ready to listen — I’m ready to get to work, and deliver on our values in Hartford.
Matt Waggner is a Democrat running for state representative in the 133rd District.