Gov. Dannel P. Malloy today nominated the former first selectman of one of the nation’s wealthiest communities to oversee a new state agency dedicated to increasing Connecticut’s stock of affordable housing.
Evonne M. Klein, who was the Darien’s Democratic first selectman from 2003 to 2009, is the governor’s choice to lead the state Department of Housing, an agency authorized by the legislature last year at his request.
“Affordable housing is integral to driving economic development and growing jobs in our state,” Malloy said.
The governor has made affordable housing a priority during his tenure. Malloy’s plans for housing in the state includes borrowing $30 million over the next 10 years to renovate and build new state-run affordable housing properties. Shortly after the legislature approved the funding for the first year of the plan, Malloy announced which units the state would be building in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk and Guilford that would create 367 affordably priced units statewide.
Malloy is asking the legislature approve his plan to fund another $60 million in renovations and new units over the next two years. Of the 14,000 affordable-housing apartments currently financed by the state, an estimated 10 percent are badly deteriorated or uninhabitable. At Westbrook Village and Bowles Park, two adjacent low-rise projects in Hartford, about half the 770 units are vacant. At Vidal Court in Stamford, half the bleak mid-rise is dilapidated, while half has been demolished and rebuilt.
Housing advocates have long said that there is not enough affordable housing in the state. A recent study by the Center for Housing Policy found that one in four households in Connecticut struggles to pay housing costs, and 137,000 families are spending at least half their income on their mortgage or rent. In the East Hartford-Hartford-West Hartford area, 19 percent of households spent at least 50 percent of their income on housing in 2010, the study found.
“There’s no question about it. We need more affordable housing,” said David Fink, policy director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, a Hartford nonprofit that advocates for housing.
The problem, Fink said, is also that too often affordable housing options are overwhelmingly available only in urban areas.
“There are 140 municipalities that don’t have much [affordable housing] to speak of at all,” he said.
The Department of Economic and Community Development reports that 10.7 percent of housing in the state was affordable in 2011, and most of it was concentrated in the cities.
Klein impressed housing advocates as first selectman with policies to encourage lower-cost housing in a lower Fairfield County community where those priced out of the local market included police officers and other public employees, college students wishing to return after their studies, and seniors.
“Our goals were to keep our seniors in the town that they love. We wanted to attract our children to come back home and live,” she said. “The other aspect of this was a recognition that we had a workforce in Darien who had long commutes, whether they worked for the town of Darien or just in the town of Darien.”
But Klein is sure to face resistance from town leaders unwilling to allow developers to build multi-family units, which are typically more affordable for these young professionals and the elderly. And developers wanting to build in certain communities are limited in when they can appeal a local decision in court. State law places a four-year moratorium on appeals when certain types of housing units equaled 2 percent of the housing stock in a given town the developer is seeking to build in, according to the legislature’s Office of Legislative Research.
Several bills have been proposed by legislators seeking to change the appeals process that would further restrict a developer’s ability to appeal a local decision. On Thursday legislators on the newly created Housing Committee heard testimony from several town leaders who take issue with a developer’s ability to appeal their locally crafted zoning decisions.
Malloy said, however, that he thinks communities are starting to open their doors.
“There has always been those border skirmishes, but I think there is a much larger consensus around this issue than existed just a few years ago,” he said. “People are starting to get this.”
Malloy points to the wealthy town of Darien as proof that it can happen. The Department of Economic and Community Development reports that in 2011, 2.6 percent of housing in Darien was affordable — an increase from previous years.
“If she can do it in Darien, she can do it anywhere,” Fink said.
Klein’s annual salary will be $120,000 and will begin when her appointment is approved by the legislature.
Follow Jacqueline Rabe Thomas on Twitter @jacquelinerabe