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New Affordable Housing Urged in Fairfield County

FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. – Housing costs have risen so much in Fairfield County that college graduates can't afford to live where they grew up, most young couples don't even bother to read housing listings and seniors are often forced to move out of towns where they raised their families.

Some local and state agencies are trying to make dramatic changes to reverse what they call an "alarming trend" that has made Fairfield County among the least affordable places to live in the country. They say more young people are forced to move out of state due to housing costs than anywhere in the United States.

New initiatives to encourage affordable housing include mixed-use zoning, changes in zoning laws and transit-oriented development. The latter would allow more housing units near train stations, buses and town centers.

These measures would increase the affordable housing stock in both cities and suburban towns by allowing developers to sell or rent more housing units per acre, making it more affordable for consumers, housing advocates say.

But persuading local zoning boards to change laws to raise the number of housing units per acre won't be easy, they say.

"This has been an issue for 40 years in Fairfield County, but the reason it has become so urgent now is demographics," said Joseph McGee, vice president of the Business Council of Fairfield County in Stamford.

"We're looking at the first wave of baby boomers turning 66 this year and going on Social Security," said McGee. "This generation is looking at their empty nest and asking, 'Do I need all this space?' And unfortunately the housing stock in many towns is not going to accommodate seniors or be affordable enough for them to stay."

The same goes for college graduates and young couples, McGee says.

"Towns in Connecticut and certainly in Fairfield County have been reluctant to change zoning laws allowing more housing per acre," McGee said. "But what zoning officials must realize is there are places like train stations and town centers where this can be accomplished without impacting the small-town character of their communities."

Housing advocates insist changes are needed to local zoning regulations so increased housing density can make suburban towns affordable again, or young and old people will continue to leave.

David Fink, policy director of the Partnership for Strong Communities in Hartford, said his group is promoting changes across the state and encouraging "transit-oriented development" to create affordable housing.

"Whether you create housing for someone making $30,000 or $500,000 a year, the infrastructure costs are the same," Fink said. "So the issue is you have to lower land costs to make houses affordable for people earning between $50,000 and $65,000."

Fink explained why increasing density lowers housing costs.

"If someone buys an acre of land for $200,000 it's hard to build a starter and sell it for under $400,000, so it’s not going to be affordable to most people," Fink said.

"But if a town allows 10 houses on that acre, then the land cost is $20,000 per acre and it becomes much more affordable for everyone," Fink said. "The key is finding areas where increased density is not going to make people freak out, such as commercial strips, town centers and train stations."

That's why transit-oriented development makes so much sense in Fairfield County, say local housing officials.

"These are places where people are used to higher density, and it's not going to mess up their neighborhood," Fink said.

Floyd Lapp, executive director of the Southwest Regional Planning Agency in Stamford, said he strongly supports transit-oriented development to create affordable housing.

"It marries mixed-use zoning near train stations with housing, which is great for both senior citizens and young people," Lapp said. "It would be a terrific idea in our area because we have more than 20 train stations."

Lapp said four of the planning agency's eight municipalities — Stamford, Norwalk, Wilton and New Canaan – have submitted requests for proposals to the state's Office for Policy and Management on transit-oriented development projects.

Read more about transit-oriented development in a story on our Websites later this week.

To reach Richard Weizel, email rweizel@mainstreetconnect.us.

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