Some Ridgefielders scoffed at affordable housing plan, but experts say it's key to vibrant town

A satellite map rendering of where the Ridgefield Affordable Housing Committee is proposing to develop new affordable housing options, pending a feasibility study.

A satellite map rendering of where the Ridgefield Affordable Housing Committee is proposing to develop new affordable housing options, pending a feasibility study.

Contributed photo

RIDGEFIELD  — Now that a large number of municipalities in the state have sent in their affordable housing plans, experts are trying to dispel some misunderstandings and myths around what many believe affordable housing means. 

Christie Stewart, chief initiative officer at the Center for Housing Opportunity of the Housing Collective, a CT-based nonprofit agency focused on ending homelessness and creating equitable housing opportunities, said the town of Ridgefield, as well as other towns across the state, should rethink its "fairly strong opposition" over creating affordable housing units in town.

At an affordable housing meeting last summer, town officials expressed frustration and some, even anger, in regard to having to meet the plan’s requirements.

At a July town meeting on the plan, John Katz, a member of Ridgefield's Planning & Zoning Commission, said while the town has a “responsibility” to provide many different kinds of housing, including affordable housing, “the idea that Ridgefield will ever achieve a 10 percent (of its units as affordable housing) goal is nonsense. Who the hell are we kidding? And why do we want it? I don't want it.”

He received loud applause.

Selectman Bob Hebert agreed with Katz. “We're trying to meet an unachievable objective of 10 percent,” he said.

Stewart said many people don't fully understand what affordable housing is — "what it looks like, who lives in it, and how connected affordability is to sustainable municipal economies and to the region."

She said those who would most likely be living in units considered affordable are not who some may think.

"We aren't talking about extremely low-income renters. We're talking about providing housing for seniors, young people and workers in the businesses you use in town —  the people who wait tables, make your coffee, cut your hair, mow your lawn," she said. "Where are all of these folks, including essential workers, municipal workers, teachers ... where is it that folks think that they're supposed to live and why would a community not want to make sure that there are a diverse array of housing options for the folks that make Ridgefield the community that it is?"

She added it's the goal of her organization to help municipalities come together around a vision for the future that everybody can agree on. 

"It's really hard. It takes time. It takes trust. It takes leadership on the ground," she said. "There isn't a one size fits all for this. The town needs be proactive in deciding what they want housing options to look like in Ridgefield."

How to embrace the problem

Stewart said, in general, a large number of renters are not represented at land use decision making tables but play an essential role in communities.

"It's incumbent upon every town to make sure that the tables at which decisions about land use and housing development are made include a full representation of your community and not just single-family homeowners," she said.

Sean Ghio, a senior policy advisor at Partnership for Strong Communities, which leads statewide advocacy efforts on affordable housing, agreed with Stewart, saying the town of Ridgefield, as well as Fairfield County as a whole, has a responsibility to affordably house all its residents, including its renters.

He added in Ridgefield, 42 percent percent of renters are cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of household income on households. That equals nearly 600 Ridgefield renters. In Fairfield County, 52 percent of renters spend an unaffordable portion of their income on housing costs.

"All Fairfield County municipalities, including Ridgefield, have a responsibility to plan for that need," he said. 

He added he finds it surprising so few towns had housing plans prior to the state requirement to develop one.

"This law came into place in 2017 so it's not a surprise or news to anybody. Yet, so many towns failed to meet the deadline," he said.

To date, about 45 towns have not yet submitted their affordable housing plan to the state's Office of Policy and Management.

He added some communities, particularly in Fairfield County, have created affordable housing trust funds. They can use those funds to help subsidize affordable housing development in their town. 

Ghio gave examples of the towns of Stamford and Darien, which both have affordable housing trust funds. 

David Goldenberg, chair of the Ridgefield Affordable Housing Committee, said a proposal for a housing trust fund is expected to go before the Planning & Zoning Commission.

"Affordable housing trust funds can also accept private donations directly so the fund can grow through collection of fees, grants, and private donations," he said.

Also, affordable housing is one of eligible uses for American Rescue Plan Act funds, Ghio said.

As an example, he said the town of Morris used some of its relief funds to help purchase land they could use for future affordable housing development.

Affordable housing development in Ridgefield

Ridgefield is looking at areas that would be suitable for the development of affordable housing. The town previously received a grant of about $50,000 from the state Department of Housing to study whether the Prospect Ridge property could be developed for affordable housing. The Prospect Ridge location is behind East Ridge Middle School, across from the Winter Garden Ice Arena — and is owned by the town. 

"The first thing we did was hire an engineer to do a site suitability study. What that determines is, 'is this buildable in the first place because if it's not, why bother spending the rest of the money on the study?'" Goldenberg said. 

He added from the study, the commission learned out of the roughly 15 acres in consideration, about five acres would be suitable for development. 

"We said that could be roughly 70 units," he said.

There's also a half-acre property at the northeast corner of Halpin Lane and Prospect Ridge that the Affordable Housing Committee is considering for affordable housing development. 

At a recent Affordable Housing Meeting Commission meeting, members said they would like to learn the impact of affordable housing on infrastructure, sewer, traffic, and other factors.

"Every site, every project, should be evaluated individually because each site, each location is different," Goldenberg said.