Westport is a state leader among suburban communities in addressing affordable housing.
The Representative Town Meeting may soon address the issue, through a fund to pay for land and development.
And Westport’s state representative “hopes for best, and expects the worst” as Hartford addresses the issue.
Those were 3 of the main takeaways from last night’s “Affordable Housing Needs and Solutions: What Westporters Should Know and How They Can Help” Zoom meeting.
A virtual audience of 100 people heard RTM moderator Jeff Wieser lead a panel of experts: State Senator Ceci Maher, State Representative Jonathan Steinberg, Planning & Zoning Commission chair Danielle Dobin, RTM Planning & Zoning Committee chair Matthew Mandell, and Westport Housing Authority chair David Newberg.
Maher called Westport “a leader (in) thinking, planning for and examining all housing options.”
Dobin noted that the town needs 1,040 deed-restricted affordable units to reach the state mandate of 10% of the housing stock. Counting units now being built or in the pipeline, she expressed confidence that we are on the way to meeting that threshold.
136 Riverside Avenue has been renovated, and now houses adults with disabilities. It is off-site affordable housing, part of the new Mill project, and an example of a creative approach to developing affordable units.
She cited the 5-Year Affordable Housing Plan, adopted last year (click here to read). Drafted to “proactively create affordable housing, in a way that fits with Westport’s New England village feel,” it includes ideas for building on town-owned land; collaborating on state-owned land, at sites like the Post Road near West Parish Road; developing “cottage clusters,” and establishing a trust fund to acquire land.
Over several decades, Newberg said, the Westport Housing Authority has invested $57 million in affordable housing. They operate 4 residential communities: Canal Park, Hales Court, Hidden Brook and Sasco Creek Village.
Among Westport’s affordable housing options: Sasco Creek Village.
Their biggest challenge is finding land to develop more. “If we built 221 more units, we could fill them tomorrow,” he said.
Some of the funding for that land could come from an Affordable Housing Fund. Mandell described various forms that could take, and a variety of revenue sources for it, such as conveyance taxes by buyers of residential property.
Steinberg spoke last, and was the least optimistic. He cited 2 bills pending in the General Assembly.
HB 6633 — the “Fair Share Bill,” which could result in the loss of local zoning — is “vindictive to communities like Westport,” the state legislator said.
HB 6890 — nicknamed “Work, Live Ride” — seeks to increase housing density near transit points. It too would override key local zoning considerations.
While other towns in Connecticut look to Westport as a model for proactivity and practical solutions, Steinberg said, he worries constantly what his colleagues representing large cities will do to the suburbs.
Affordable housing units are part of 1177 Post Road East. The project helped Westport earn a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g proposals.
Wieser then turned the session over to the audience. To the question of how Westport can create more homes for first-time — presumably lower-income — buyers, Dobin reintroduced the idea of small cottage clusters, as well as a fund through which the town could purchase small “starter” homes. That would save them from demolition and the new construction of large homes that follows.
Answering a question about the next moratorium from 8-30g — the state mandate for building affordable housing — Dobin said that Westport is well on the way to amassing enough “points,” from projects underway and planned.
However, she added, there are no guarantees. A planned multi-family development at the former Men’s Wearhouse on Post Road East is now apparently off the table.
Dobin said that shows the importance of the town providing housing, on land it owns, rather than relying on developers.
Another questioner asked about the possibility of amending 8-30g. “I’ve been trying for 13 years” without much success, Steinberg said.
Meanwhile, one resident asked, what can Westporters do? “Read the Affordable Housing Plan,” Dobin urged. “Get involved with the RTM and P&Z. Go to meetings, and speak up.”
(“06880” is your hyper-local blog. Please click here to support our coverage of town issues, events and more.)