Hous­ing de­mand out­strips sup­ply

Af­ford­able res­i­dences in wealthy Fair­field County is of­ten hard to come by

Stamford Advocate (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Em­i­lie Mun­son, Justin Papp, Mary O’Leary and Han­nah Dellinger

Daisy Franklin was liv­ing in a com­fort­able home in Nor­walk with her two chil­dren and the man she thought she’d marry.

But when the cou­ple split am­i­ca­bly, it be­came clear she’d need to look for other liv­ing ar­range­ments for her fam­ily.

Stay­ing with her ex wasn’t an op­tion, and on her min­i­mum hourly wage as an elec­tri­cian at the man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany Har­rell’s Inc., her op­tions on the pri­vate rental mar­ket were lim­ited. One op­por­tu­nity arose, liv­ing in a shared apart­ment with three other women, but Franklin and her chil­dren — one in mid­dle school and one in el­e­men­tary school at the time — would have had to share a sin­gle room.

“It could’ve worked, but for how long?” Franklin won­dered.

De­spite some mis­giv­ings — what about crime, gangs, drugs? — Franklin de­cided to add her name to the wait­ing list for pub­lic hous­ing.

Steep hous­ing costs

In Con­necti­cut, where home prices and rents are some of the high­est in the na­tion, de­mand for af­ford­able hous­ing far out­strips the sup­ply.

To af­ford a two-bed­room rental, a Con­necti­cut res­i­dent on av­er­age needs to make $24.90 per hour or work 99 hours a week on min­i­mum wage, the Na­tional Low In­come Hous­ing Coali­tion found in 2018. That’s the ninth high­est hous­ing wage in the na­tion.

“The hous­ing stock in Con­necti­cut is not made for peo­ple mak­ing min­i­mum wage,” said Christie Ste­wart, di­rec­tor of Fair­field County Cen­ter for Hous­ing Op­por­tu­nity, a newly formed non­profit based out of Bridge­port. “I’ve worked for years for a shel­ter provider. You walk through those shel­ters, those peo­ple are all em­ployed.”

In Fair­field and New Haven coun­ties, hous­ing costs climb higher than the rest of the state. The Stam­ford-Nor­walk re­gion is the fifth most-ex­pen­sive U.S. metropoli­tan area for rent­ing a two-bed­room apart­ment, the 2018 NLIHC re­port found.

In the New Haven area, an in­di­vid­ual must make $24.98 an hour — $51,960 a year — to af­ford the av­er­age two-bed­room apart­ment. But in the Fair­field County suburbs, it’s about $34 per hour in Nor­walk, $46 in New Canaan and West­port, and over $57 per hour in Green­wich, North Stam­ford and We­ston.

“Hav­ing safe, san­i­tary, stable af­ford­able hous­ing is re­ally key to folks work­ing

their way out of poverty and I don’t think there is nearly enough of that around,” said Adam Bovil­sky, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Nor­walk Hous­ing Author­ity. “Some fam­i­lies do be­come what we re­fer to as eco­nom­i­cally home­less, which is if they can’t af­ford the rent, they can be evicted and be­come home­less tem­po­rar­ily even if they have work­ing mem­bers of the fam­ily earn­ing in­come, just be­cause it is too dif­fi­cult to af­ford ev­ery­thing — your food, your cloth­ing, your medicine — when your hous­ing be­comes so ex­pen­sive.”

The re­sult is half of Con­necti­cut renters and about a third of home­own­ers spend more than 30 per­cent of their in­come on hous­ing, the Hart­ford-based Part­ner­ship for Strong Com­mu­ni­ties found in Jan­uary. The U.S. gov­ern­ment con­sid­ers hous­ing af­ford­able when in­di­vid­u­als spend 30 per­cent of their in­come or less on it.

The brink of home­less­ness

With so much in­come go­ing to­ward hous­ing, one life event — a job loss, health emer­gency, do­mes­tic

vi­o­lence — can some­times push in­di­vid­u­als to the brink of home­less­ness.

For Lisa, who de­clined to use her last name, the de­cid­ing fac­tor was be­ing laid off from the in­sur­ance ti­tan MetLife, when she was nine months preg­nant. She had lived in Bridge­port for years and was try­ing to fin­ish her un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree at Sa­cred Heart Univer­sity.

About to be­come an un­em­ployed sin­gle mother, she ap­plied for sub­si­dized hous­ing in sev­eral Fair­field County towns and waited four years be­fore be­ing ac­cepted in West­port.

Con­sid­ered one of New York City’s bed­room com­mu­ni­ties, West­port has seen a change in the peo­ple seek­ing hous­ing as­sis­tance in re­cent years.

When the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis hit fam­i­lies with in­vest­ments hard, Carol Martin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fair­field and West­port hous­ing au­thor­i­ties, saw mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar homes be­ing fore­closed on.

“Some of those fam­i­lies ended up on our wait lists,” Martin said. “I’ve spo­ken to sev­eral peo­ple who that has hap­pened to lo­cally and the first thing out of their mouth is: I never thought I would be in this po­si­tion.”

But for oth­ers, an un­sta­ble home has been a part of

life since birth.

Aban­doned by her mother with a mostly ab­sent fa­ther, Zola Richard­son, 27, spent her tod­dler years in fos­ter care un­til a great-aunt took her in.

A self-de­scribed “hard­headed teenager” with aban­don­ment is­sues, at age 18, she left the Hart­ford Job Corp with an­other trainee, seven years her se­nior, and lived with him in the Bronx. She was preg­nant.

“It was seven years of ups and down, shel­ter stays, couch stays. That was a long-drag­ging re­la­tion­ship. That is all my kids know,” Richard­son said of the stress and neg­a­tive im­pact from their itin­er­ant life­style in the New York shel­ter sys­tem.

In New Haven since July 2016, her daugh­ter, 8, and her son, 7, now are en­rolled in the same school for the sec­ond year in a row, which pro­vides some sta­bil­ity, but their hous­ing is pre­car­i­ous.

Richard­son and the chil­dren had a stay in Spooner House in Shel­ton, be­fore get­ting an apart­ment through the state’s Rapid Re-hous­ing pro­gram. Un­able to con­trib­ute enough to the rent af­ter nine months, she was evicted and ended up in an­other shel­ter.

Richard­son said it feels like a Catch-22. She has to

be work­ing to qual­ify for the day care for her third child, a 6-month-old son. But the min­i­mum-wage, part-time jobs she has done can’t cover util­i­ties and rent, and while she again qual­i­fies for an apart­ment, she fears the out­come will be the same.

“My kids de­serve some­thing per­ma­nent,” Richard­son said.

Af­ford­able hous­ing gap

Un­able to find cheap mar­ket-rate hous­ing, lo­cal and state wait lists for af­ford­able hous­ing are some­times thou­sands of peo­ple long.

Af­ford­able hous­ing can be pro­vided in many ways such as sub­si­dized pri­vate de­vel­op­ment, gov­ern­ment­funded hous­ing and state or fed­er­ally funded hous­ing vouch­ers.

But de­spite state and fed­eral in­vest­ment, there is a gap: in Con­necti­cut in 2018, 140,531 house­holds were deemed “ex­tremely low in­come” — $29,500 or less for a fam­ily of four in Bridge­port, or $42,100 or less in Stam­ford/Nor­walk — but only 51,050 af­ford­able rental units were avail­able. That’s less than one af­ford­able unit for ev­ery three ex­tremely low-in­come house­holds.

“It’s get­ting much more dif­fi­cult to find hous­ing,

even if you have a job and make de­cent money,” said An­thony John­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Green­wich Hous­ing Author­ity. “Places that used to be rentals have been torn down and turned into pri­vate homes. There are some new af­ford­able build­ings and other types of hous­ing com­ing in, but the rate we’re los­ing them doesn’t match the rate they are be­ing re­placed at.”

Find­ing af­ford­able hous­ing is also a prob­lem for peo­ple with higher in­comes, such as those mak­ing up to 80 per­cent of the area me­dian in­come. They, too, qual­ify for as­sis­tance.

In the New Haven area, that thresh­old is $73,520 for a fam­ily of four; in Bridge­port, $75,040; in Dan­bury, $93,040; and in Stam­ford/ Nor­walk, $107,920, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Hous­ing’s 2018 in­come lim­its.

The peo­ple liv­ing in sub­si­dized hous­ing run the gamut, ac­cord­ing to the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Fair­field and West­port hous­ing au­thor­i­ties.

“We have folks that were home­less. We have frail el­derly peo­ple. We have old and young folks that are em­ployed,” Martin said. “We have town staff, sin­glein­come fam­i­lies with two and three chil­dren ... we

re­ally have ev­ery­thing.”

A place to call home

As for Franklin, she spent more than three years on a wait­ing list, dur­ing which time her con­cerns about liv­ing in the projects had not sub­sided. But with high de­mand for apart­ments and higher rents, she had only a few choices: find a shel­ter, bur­den a fam­ily mem­ber, or move to Rood­ner Court, a Nor­walk hous­ing project to which she’d been ac­cepted.

With her chil­dren, Franklin moved into Rood­ner Court more than a decade ago and quickly found her ideas about pub­lic hous­ing dis­pelled. She be­gan mak­ing friends, lead­ing reg­u­lar cleanups of the hall­ways and grounds, tak­ing lead­er­ship roles — she is a mem­ber of the Nor­walk Fair Hous­ing Ad­vi­sory Com­mis­sion and the Res­i­dents Ad­vi­sory Board — and, most of all, dis­cov­er­ing beauty in Rood­ner Court.

Franklin and her chil­dren were safe. They had a place to call home. In the projects, a sense of pride emerged.

“Hav­ing a home is im­por­tant to me. I don’t want to wake up in the morn­ing and find out I don’t have hous­ing,” Franklin said. “It’s my ad­dress, it’s my home. Clean, dirty, what­ever — it’s still my home.”

Justin Papp / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Rood­ner Court hous­ing projects in Nor­walk on Mon­day.

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