By Lorraine Connelly
While the Wallingford Town Council has admirably made every effort keep the issue of Community Pool alive, perhaps there is a less splashy, more pressing matter that deserves to be a rallying point for all town residents — affordable housing.
In accordance with Connecticut Statute Sec. 8-30j, passed in 2018, each municipality must prepare or amend and adopt an affordable housing plan for the municipality at least once every five years. The plan needs to specify how the municipality intends to increase the number of affordable housing developments. At an April meeting, the Planning and Zoning Commission reviewed a 57-page report prepared by RKG Associates. A statement on page 38 caught my attention. According to a development trends analysis, 90% of Wallingford’s housing stock is single-family and was built pre-2000. And over the past two decades, roughly 99% of new residential development has been single family dwellings. What startling figures. So, how are we addressing the needs of the many residents who do not meet the threshold for home ownership?
On a recent episode of the “Citizen Mike” show, Renée Dobos, chief executive officer of Connecticut Housing Partners, a nonprofit that develops and manages affordable housing projects, spoke passionately about destigmatizing and reframing the issue of affordable housing. “Affordable housing,” said Dobos, “should be housing of choice, not housing of last resort.”
Dobos has some experience with Wallingford. She worked for the New Haven Housing Authority when the Wallingford Housing Authority (WHA) contracted with New Haven to financially stabilize the organization. She was acting interim executive director of WHA from 2013 to 2015 while still working full time in New Haven.
Of her time here, she says, “it was a rewarding experience because I was able to spread my wings beyond HUD and learn about the state affordable housing portfolio.” There is an obvious need for affordable housing in Wallingford, says Dobos, “the average renter wage in Connecticut is $17.50 per hour. For a household to be able to rent a 2-bedroom unit, $24.50 per hour is required. Per the last census data for Wallingford, 6.3% of the households are living in poverty which equates to nearly 1,200 households.” Another sobering statistic.
Dobos points to successful affordable housing developments in Fairfield County as an example of how towns can integrate affordable housing into their communities. While Wallingford has remained static on this issue, the Town of Wilton constructed Wilton Commons on 4.8 acres 10 years ago. This 50-unit community provides seniors with affordable independent living with on-site staff. The $10 million project was funded with Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits, a Connecticut Housing Finance Authority mortgage, and additional funding from NeighborWorks America.
Located near Wilton’s train station, with easy access to downtown, the development has recentered the community. It became a model for a private developer to create a market-rate complex, similar in design, adjacent to the affordable housing units. This is what Dubos means when she says affordable housing should be “housing of choice” — a desirable place to live.
Dobos says, “as hard as we try, we will never be able to completely remove the stigma of affordable housing, but through education we do our best to outline the benefits of diversity in a community. The pandemic highlighted the hard fact that there is a shortage of affordable housing.” She adds, “affordable housing is an important resource to have for a vibrant and stable workforce.”
Wallingford’s recently adopted Affordable Housing Plan does address — at least ideologically — the needs of our growing workforce: “Wallingford has a net inflow of workers. This means that during daytime business hours, the town experiences a net population increase, which can be good for local commercial businesses as well as offering an opportunity to capture additional working residents by providing housing options that could shorten their commute.”
Planning and Zoning Commissioner Jim Fitzsimmons concurs. “As a town we need solutions to provide affordable housing for our teachers, police, fire fighters, veterans, and all other families. The need for more affordable housing is not going to go away but only increase,” he said in a recent conversation.
While there have been encouraging discussions about easing regulations in Wallingford’s Incentive Housing Zone to allow for higher residential density, i.e., multi-family units, in the lower downtown area, “Tackling affordable housing via land use planning won’t necessarily solve the problem,” says Fitzsimmons.
It is incumbent upon town leaders to proactively address affordable housing. Take a field trip to existing developments around the state and learn how other communities are addressing their need for affordable housing. Instead of treading water, it’s time to take a deep dive into this pressing issue.
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford resident.