Common Sense Solutions: Affordable Housing

This is the fourth of an eight-part digital series where I address my positions on a range of different town issues that Westporters care about. To see the first three of the series on traffic, school funding and the Arts Center at Barons South, please click herehere and here.

Dear Neighbors,

Affordable housing is not something to fear. Westport seniors on fixed incomes, young adults just starting out, and many folks who work in our local businesses could benefit from more housing options.

The problem is that the law known as 8-30g encourages developers to provide affordable housing by building giant apartment buildings with a few affordable units subsidized by many “market rate” units.  These developments are often proposed for the worst possible sites (for example, the ill-conceived plan for an apartment house on the wetlands at the Wilton Road/Kings Highway intersection) or are just too big (for example, the four-story development planned for 1177 Post Road East below). So neighbors object, Planning & Zoning reacts, and Westport gets the reputation for being hostile to affordable housing.

Rendering of apartment complex under construction at 1177 Post Road East

I’ve had experience on both sides of this issue. In California, I was an advocate for affordable housing. In Westport, as an RTM Representative, I watched my Greens Farms district become overwhelmed with proposals for large affordable housing projects and I worked hard with the community to protect our neighborhood from overdevelopment. I can say with confidence that my neighbors and I were not opposed to affordable housing. We were opposed to density that threatened the character of our neighborhood.

So let’s address affordable housing the right way. Let’s start by being realistic. The town will never buy a downtown property and build and manage an apartment building. It’s too expensive and it’s not what people have said they want.

But we do have a secret asset – the town’s inventory of residential real estate.  Did you know that on Barons South, in addition to the buildings that the Arts Center wants to rent, there are three residences we could deed restrict as affordable housing? These homes are attractive, structurally sound and conveniently located. They’d make great affordable housing. These are just three of many town-owned residences that could be adaptively reused as affordable housing without overwhelming the surrounding neighborhood. This won’t amass a lot of affordable housing “points,” but it’s better for our residents, including the people who rent the affordable units, because it preserves the character of our community.

Vacant town-owned residence at 72 Compo Road South (Baron’s South)
Photo by Wendy Crowther

Let’s also look at our zoning regulations to see if we can encourage the private market to do affordable housing the right way. Current zoning encourages multifamily housing near the Post Road. That means big apartment buildings and new construction. It doesn’t have to be this way considering there is a lot of existing housing stock in town that could be converted to three or four affordable units. Wouldn’t it be better to adaptively reuse the structures we already have, rather than build new ones? Current zoning regulations allow seniors to create accessory apartments in their homes. Let’s build on that model.

Encouraging private owners to deed restrict their properties may require new financial incentives, such as tax credits. But massive new development means investment in new infrastructure, which can cost even more. So this could be a win for Westport taxpayers.

Let me know what you think. As your First Selectman, I will always be on the lookout for creative solutions.

Best, John

Approved by John F. Suggs
Paid for by Suggs2017
H. Nordholm, Treasurer
Copyright © 2017 Suggs for First Selectman, All rights reserved.