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Connecticut’s affordable housing shortage hits hard

December 26, 2018

NORWALK, Conn. (AP) — 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.

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 in 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.

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 “hard-headed teenager” with abandonment issues, at age 18, she left the Hartford Job Corps Academy 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.

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, government-funded 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 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, single-income families with two and three children ... we really have everything.”

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.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2Cuoyvq

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Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com

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