Many Fairfield County towns get failing grades for affordable housing plans

Photo of Alex Putterman

Fairfield County towns drew mixed grades for affordable housing plans due this year under a state law, according to a report card system developed by Connecticut housing groups and published this week.

The groups, led by Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity, graded each town on a variety of factors, including the quality of its process in designing its plan, the strength of its needs assessment and the steps outlined for action and implementation. They then assigned each town a number of "houses" on a one-to-five scale, with "one house" representing a weak plan and "five houses" representing a nearly perfect one.

Stamford (four houses) and Danbury (three and a half houses) graded out best according to the groups' criteria, followed by Bethel, Fairfield and Westport (three). At the other end of the spectrum, Sherman and New Fairfield received only one house out of five, and five other towns received just one and a half houses.

Overall, 12 of the 17 plans the groups graded received two and a half houses or fewer.

Six Fairfield County communities — Bridgeport, Darien, Norwalk, Ridgefield, Shelton and Trumbull — were not graded because they had not submitted plans as of early September. Though plans from all 169 Connecticut towns and cities were due June 1, more than 50 statewide still have not submitted them.

Peter Harrison, director of Desegrate CT, which was involved in the development of the report cards, said the plans submitted by Fairfield County towns spanned a wide spectrum, with some towns and cities taking the process seriously and others less so.

Overall, Harrison said, "a lot of towns are not doing enough."

"We would have liked to have seen more communities taking this seriously and investing more in the process and understanding why this is not some scary experience to have more affordable housing," he said.

Under a state law passed in 2017, towns and cities must submit affordable housing plans to the state Office of Policy and Management at least once every five years and post them publicly online. The plans must "specify how the municipality intends to increase the number of affordable housing developments in the municipality," the law says.

Despite poor grades for many Fairfield County towns, FCCHO director Christie Stewart said she was generally encouraged by the quality of the plans, including in communities not known for affordable housing.

"The takeaway for me is that we're on the right track," Stewart said. "Obviously yes, there are towns where I wish they had done better, but I'm really more focused on how excited I was by some of the towns who exceeded my expectations and who really took seriously their responsibility to produce these plans."

As an example, Stewart pointed to Weston, a town with little affordable housing that nonetheless submitted a "very thoughtful" plan.

"For a town that hasn't considered housing affordability as central in the past, that was a huge step forward for them," she said.

Harrison additionally noted Fairfield and Bethel as towns that had pleasantly surprised him with the quality of their plans.

On its website, the FCCHO praised Westport for proposing an affordable housing trust fund and Stamford for making its process particularly open to public participation but concluded that "most plans lack a housing needs analysis, an analysis of impediments to fair housing, a regional and/or state housing market analysis, or actions that explicitly relate to equity."

In towns that received poor grades from the housing groups, officials offered a variety of explanations. Sherman first selectman Don Lowe, for example, said the purpose of his town's plan wasn't to promote more affordable housing but to report on what affordable housing currently exists.

Lowe said Sherman's plan was "neither for nor against" affordable housing and suggested the state had gone too far in "tinkering" with housing policy in places like his town, where 0.4 percent of housing is affordable according to state data.

"The state, in its effort to diversify, is ultimately homogenizing these towns in many ways," said Lowe, a Democrat. "Each town in Connecticut is unique. That's one of the beautiful things about this state, that towns are unique and interesting, and each town is known for its certain characteristics."

In New Fairfield, where 1.5 percent of housing is affordable, selectman Khris Hall said the process of drafting the town's plan was difficult due to resistance from some residents, as well as a lack of local government infrastructure around affordable housing. 

"New Fairfield is like a lot of small towns, without resources dedicated to planning for housing," she said.

Monroe town planner Rich Schultz said the town, where 1.5 percent of units are affordable, would like to have more affordable housing but that adding too much more will be difficult due to the town's lack of public sewage.

"It's important that you tell the difference between towns with municipal sewer systems and towns that are on-site, like Easton and Monroe," he said. "You have to do that. It's not fair, it's inappropriate, and it's irresponsible [not to]."

Officials from Easton, Redding, Wilton and Newtown did not respond to requests for comment on their towns' poor scores.

Alexis Harrison, a member of CT169Strong, a group that defends local zoning, said in a statement that the scorecard system was "misguided, subjective, and somewhat misleading attempt by housing development advocates to grade municipalities on their affordable housing plans using self-created subjective criteria which are not listed in the statute."

Peter Harrison, from Desegregate CT, said the report card project was intended to introduce accountability into the affordable housing plan process. The state's 2021 law includes no consequences for towns that submit weak plans or even that decline to submit plans at all.

"These [report cards] are really a pretty great way to hold those towns to account," he said. "A lot of them are not doing the work or are trying to just check a box and move on with the status quo, and this is going to make it a lot harder for them to move on in that vein."

Stewart said she hopes that in five years, when towns will be required to submit affordable housing plans again, towns will build off the ones they submitted this year.

If implemented, she said, the new plans represent "tremendous and unique opportunity" for affordable housing in Connecticut.

"We finally have towns thinking specifically about housing affordability and how they can proactively determine what that should look like in their communities," she said. If you back up five years, that was sort of unheard of."