Fairfield County’s housing shortage is an economic time bomb

May 10, 2022

In an editorial for The CT Mirror, Juanita James, President and CEO of Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, and Rafia Zahir-Uddin, Vice President of Global Philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase & Co., discuss Fairfield County’s housing crisis and how to solve it.

The high cost of housing in Fairfield County is commonly accepted as a tradeoff for living close to New York City in a community known for terrific schools, abundant open spaces, and beautiful waterfronts.

But this narrative hides the fact that Fairfield County is facing a housing crisis that threatens our community’s short- and long-term economic health. Simply put, our community does not have a large enough supply of affordable housing to accommodate those who live and work here.

Juanita James

The good news is that we have the power to change — but only if we take immediate steps to address a problem that has been long overlooked.

Just how bad is the problem?

According to a 2021 research report by Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity and Urban Institute, more than half of Fairfield County’s 114,000 renter households are cost burdened or severely cost burdened — meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their incomes to secure housing.

The same research found these burdens disproportionately impact Black and Latino households and individuals with disabilities — populations that are more likely to rent.

Not surprisingly, these burdens also fall primarily on those with lower incomes. And in Fairfield County, the gap between rich and poor is especially large. In fact, Fairfield County is home to one of the nation’s largest income and opportunity gaps.

This means we have the resources to change this dynamic. And when we consider the economic and social costs that are associated with high housing costs, we should also be motivated to try a new approach.

Rafia Zahir-Uddin

Decades of research and data show that when families live without the burden of high housing costs, children do better in school. People are healthier. Families are stronger. Our communities are richer. The economy is healthier. And we are more just and equitable.

We have already started taking important early steps toward addressing our housing crisis and putting Fairfield County on the path to creating effective housing solutions to meet the needs of our most vulnerable residents and improve our economic health.

In 2019, Fairfield County’s Community Foundation joined forces with the Housing Collective, Regional Plan Association, and the Partnership for Strong Communities to launch Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity (FCCHO). With the support of funders like JP Morgan Chase, FCCHO is working with residents, government, community organizations, nonprofits, and business leaders to identify and implement equitable solutions to Fairfield County’s affordable housing challenge.

Since its inception, FCCHO has:
● inventoried all assisted housing in the state and built an open source data platform (AffordCT) to visualize that inventory and support data-driven decision making around housing policy and practice;
● helped Fairfield County municipalities secure funding and technical assistance to create affordable housing plans;
● created a Fairfield County Housing Needs Assessment which provides every town in the region with data to clearly identify its housing needs;
● facilitated the Governor’s Task Force on Transit-Oriented Development in Fairfield County; and
● coalesced the region in outreach and connection to Unite CT, Connecticut’s Rental Assistance Program.

Together, we are building a strong foundation for understanding our housing affordability challenges and making progress towards meeting them.

We invite you to join us in this effort by taking simple, yet important, steps that can help produce meaningful change.

It starts with learning about the issues and talking to others. The Fairfield County Talks Housing series — facilitated by FCCHO — offers Fairfield County residents to learn about housing through fact-based, community-led conversations.

There, you’ll learn about how to address our housing crisis through creating more housing units in your community and increasing development of new housing along major transportation corridors.

You’ll learn how minimum lot size requirements in many Fairfield County communities reduce affordability by making it more expensive to build new homes and how allowing for accessory dwelling units — smaller independent living spaces built on the same lot as a single-family home — can expand affordable housing options.

Finally, you can speak up and let your local and state elected officials know where you stand on these and other issues. You can do this through submitting testimony at public hearings, contacting their offices, and attending and making your voice heard at zoning meetings.

Your voice can make a difference in ensuring that we can create a Fairfield County that is affordable for all and, in turn, more prosperous for everyone.

Originally published on May 10, 2022, in The CT Mirror.