‘Enormous need’: A Ridgefield committee wants to set up an affordable-housing trust fund

Photo of Shayla Colon

RIDGEFIELD — The town’s affordable housing committee is interested in establishing a trust fund for the development of affordable housing.

Affordable housing trust funds are allowable under state law, letting towns create a trust fund that can be used to increase affordable housing in that community. Additional building fees, for example, can be tacked onto projects with money from those fees going toward the fund.

Committee Chairman Dave Goldenberg shared the idea with the Board of Selectmen during a meeting last week. The committee’s next step is to develop a proposal for the Board of Selectmen and Planning and Zoning Department.

Goldenberg anticipates they’re a couple of months away from having that plan drawn up.

The committee must consider how it plans to raise money for the fund and how to eventually spend it.

Some proposed ways of raising money for the fund include accepting donations, obtaining grants or potentially charging builders a fee for developing or permits. But perhaps the most interesting of mechanisms is via a “fee in lieu.”

“You could require a set-aside or a fee in lieu, which means the developer can make some units affordable or make a contribution for each unit they’re supposed to build,” Goldenberg said.

Similarly, money from the trust can be spent on more than just building new, affordable housing.

For example, the money can be used to pay landowners a property fee for a deed restriction in return or to give out rehabilitation loans so individuals can renovate a unit to make it affordable.

Karen McLean, chairwoman of the social work department at Western Connecticut State University, said a loan program can help prospective homeowners buy a blighted property to make it affordable. The rehab loan program, as McLean referred to it, can produce housing and improve local aesthetics, and spur a “community effect” too.

When one house is rehabbed, others may take an interest and decide to do the same, she said.

“A lot of these programs provide opportunities for people with limited resources or incomes so they can have quality affordable housing,” she said.

“It can provide a lot of resources so everyone gets to participate in different levels of the housing market,” she added.

McLean’s concern however, is about whether the funding will be used to maintain existing public housing structures and if poorer individuals would be segregated.

She said there’s “stigmatization” that comes with affordable housing and communities need to be conscious of how the affordable units are built and the potential for those residents to be “pigeonholed” because they live in one of few affordably designated locations.

Despite that concern, McLean thinks an affordable housing trust fund is something that should be done because it can provide housing and resources to those who need it while diversifying a municipality’s stock.

Few towns in Connecticut have devised affordable housing trusts, but Ridgefield is hoping to become one. Goldenberg said the committee has been gauging input from other towns that have or are considering trusts.

Greenwich, for example, is seeking to start a trust funded entirely by private donations and controlled by a resident board with town officials. Stamford approved a trust in 2020 that the city funds with fee-in-lieu payments and commercial linkage fees.

While First Selectman Rudy Marconi concurred that it’s “not a bad idea,” he also said a trust fund is “not the panacea it sounds like.”

“You just need so much funding, I don’t know if a housing trust fund is really going to generate. We don’t have that much building going on in this town,” he said. “It would take years to build it up where it has any kind of an impact on affordability, but it’s still an idea and worth pursuing.”

Goldenberg said although the trust fund is a “small part” of making Ridgefield more affordable, it is an “important” component.

Data he presented to the selectmen indicated that 42 percent of renters and 29 percent of homeowners in Ridgefield are “cost-burdened.” Of the 9,645 units in town, only about three percent are categorized as affordable housing.

“There really is an enormous need,” he said.