“Its So Expensive to Live Around Here”

By Leo Zhang, Research Associate

Last year, on a hot summer day after my lunch break, I walked into the copy room to scan some documents as an administrative intern at a fire department in Fairfield County. I heard a sigh from the assistant chief while he talked to the fire marshal who will be set to retire soon: “Bob and Ryan just told us about their retirement. We will be able to only send three kids to the academy this year. We are going to have more vacancies, and we don’t have enough people on the eligibility list.” The fire marshal patted his shoulder and said, “You are not alone. The Police Department and the Board of Education have the same issue.” Later that day I asked Tracy, the executive assistant, “Are we short of hands?” Tracy shook her head. “It’s been a while. The younger generation doesn’t want to commute, and it is so expensive to live around here.” 

While there are multiple factors behind the labor shortage, one of the biggest factors driving these vacancies is the rising housing prices. Housing costs have outpaced people’s wages and salaries for decades. Now that housing prices have reached historic highs, they have become an obstacle for the labor market because people no longer can afford to live near where they work.

Fairfield County, one of the best places to live in Connecticut, offers a suburban environment with a short commute to New York City (which has one of the most expensive housing markets in the nation), beaches, and top-rated school districts. It looks like a perfect place to settle down; however, housing has become too expensive for most families. In 2023, median sale prices were up about 8% compared to those in 2022 and 55% from 2019.[1] In March 2024, while the median home sold price was $528k, the median listing home price was $796K in Fairfield County.[2] The disparity indicates that listed homes for sale are much more expensive than people want to purchase.

According to the 2023 Affordable Housing Appeals List provided by the Connecticut State Department of Housing, 20 out of 24 towns/cities in Fairfield County haven’t met the State’s 10% affordable housing requirement.[3] Fairfield County ranks last in Connecticut for affordable housing options.[4] In 2024, there is a shortage of more than 25,000 affordable housing units in the county.[5]

Affordable housing is housing in which the occupant is paying no more than 30 percent of gross income for housing costs, including utilities.[6] In Greenwich, one of the richest neighborhoods in Fairfield County, “…affordable housing units (AHU) are those households with an annual income of no more than eighty percent (80%) of the median family income for the Stamford-Norwalk HUD Metropolitan Fair Market Rent Income Area.[7] With this in mind, the PSC Fact Sheet reports that the average wage in Connecticut, still cannot even afford a one-bedroom apartment ($22.99 an hour vs. $25.90 an hour). An Area Median Income of 80% allows for too great a range of potential families that qualify for affordable housing, making it even more difficult for lots of low-income families to partake in an already limited supply of housing.

Zoning reform, more investment in housing, transit-oriented development, and stronger tenant protection could all promote and increase affordable housing, but local zoning regulation reform, or exclusionary zoning reform, can help fix the problem the quickest. Exclusionary zoning usually favors single-family zoning and restricts the construction of multiple-family housing and buildings. Zoning reform has received pushback from residents in wealthier neighborhoods like Fairfield County, who say “no” to affordable housing projects at a local level. While there could be different reasons to reject developers’ proposals to build affordable housing, ranging from limited public sewer systems to overcrowded schools to the loss of community character, one misleading perception remains in residents’ minds: the people brought with affordable housing threaten the well-being of the community. 

Many people have a perception that affordable housing will bring drug addicts and criminals to their neighborhoods. This is simply not true. In Greenwich, the median annual town-paid wages of all full-time employees and teachers of the Town of Greenwich for the fiscal year ended June 30th, 2022 was $87,630,[8] while 80% of the median income in the Stamford-Norwalk Area was $94,320 in 2022,[9] which means town employees and teachers are eligible to move into affordable housing. The gross generalization made by residents includes these eligible people, who are respected professionals. Residents should realize that when they push back against affordable housing, they also push away the very people who educate their children, fight local crime, clean their towns and beaches, and build their homes. The short-staffed fire department reflects a lack of affordable housing, making it harder for first responders to protect the community.

In many wealthy communities, one attitude toward affordable housing projects reigns supreme: NIMBY (not in my backyard).[10] The wealthier and more educated the community, the fiercer the battle and the more likely the project’s demise. These communities could drag the developers into lengthy legal battles by hiring consultants and attorneys. Often, the developers bleed cash for legal fees to the extent that they lose their patience and withdraw. What can affordable housing advocates and proponents do? With the current popular view on affordable housing, they must change the narrative around affordable housing by explaining the impact it has on our communities and neighborhoods. The common arguments that affordable housing brings crime, poverty, and drugs to neighborhoods simply are not true, and numerous studies have shown that affordable housing helps grow the economy and reduce crime as families are more secure. Armed with facts, proponents of affordable housing have to dismantle the stigma around affordable housing to hope for any change.

[1] Monk, Ginny. “CT house prices rose 10% in a year. Will they ever drop?” CT Mirror, November 28, 2023. www.ctmirror.org/2023/11/28/ct-housing-market-real-estate-homes-for-sale/.

[2] Fairfield County, CT housing market, March 2024. www.realtor.com/realestateandhomes-search/Fairfield-County_CT/overview.

[3] 2023 Affordable Housing Appeals Listing. portal.ct.gov/-/media/doh/2023-affordable-appeals-list-formatted-for-annual-report.pdf.

[4] Brone, Abigail. “CT lawmakers look for ways to increase affordable housing in Fairfield County.” Connecticut Public Radio, January 24 2024. www.ctpublic.org/news/2024-01-31/ct-lawmakers-look-for-ways-to-increase-affordable-housing-in-fairfield-county.

[5] Paca, Mendi Blue. “ Opinion: ‘it’s past time to admit that we simply do not have nearly enough affordable housing’ in CT”. CT Insider, February 9 2024. www.fccfoundation.org/opinion-its-past-time-to-admit-that-we-simply-do-not-have-nearly-enough-affordable-housing-in-ct/.

[6] Glossary of Terms to Affordable Housing. www.archives.hud.gov/local/nv/goodstories/2006-04-06glos.cfm.

[7] Greenwich Building Zone Regulations. Section 6-110(b)(3). https://www.greenwichct.gov/DocumentCenter/View/22050/PLPZ-2021-00173—6-110—Final-proposal

[8] Personal Communication with the Department of Planning and Zoning in the Town of Greenwich. April 20, 2024.

[9] Connecticut Housing Finance Authority. “2022 Income Limit Area Definitions Connecticut Metropolitan & Non-Metropolitan Areas.” www.chfa.org/assets/1/6/2021_CT_MTSP_Income___Rent_Limit_Chart.pdf.

[10] Lavitt, Erin, "A Place to Call Home: The Fight for Affordable" (2018). International Development, Community and Environment (IDCE). 200. https://commons.clarku.edu/idce_masters_papers/200

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