STAMFORD – Unlike many cities its size, Stamford has no department of housing.
It’s true even though a large number of housing units, roughly 10,000, have been built in the last dozen years, and even though housing complaints flood city hall.
Yet a proposal by Mayor Caroline Simmons’ administration to create the position of housing coordinator has been rejected once again.
Simmons requested the $102,000-a-year job in her 2023-24 operating budget, but the Board of Finance cut it last April.
This month her administration tried to install a housing coordinator in a different way – as an 18-month trial that charges the $150,000 cost to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund instead of the city operating budget, which requires Board of Finance and Board of Representatives approvals.
Money for the trust fund, formed three years ago to boost the number of affordable housing units, doesn’t come from taxpayers. It comes from developers in two ways – through linkage fees, which are a slice of the revenue from building permits – and from fees developers pay rather than include affordable units in their housing projects.
Simmons wrote the members of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund board a letter outlining the need for a coordinator. Navigating the housing system is “challenging,” Simmons wrote, and the city “needs a dedicated employee focused on housing issues” as “demands on the city for housing support are growing.”
Simmons’ chief of staff, Bridget Fox, said during the trust fund board’s December meeting that “the demand for affordable housing is at an all-time high” and hiring a housing coordinator is “critical” to fielding the number of complaints. Most are about how landlords and building managers operate apartment buildings, Fox said.
An increasing number of residents are “anxious and overwhelmed” about “getting off waiting lists and into housing,” said Fox, who asked that the board fund the position from Jan. 1, 2024 through July 1, 2025, “to gather data and ensure the effectiveness of having someone dedicated to managing the affordable housing program.”
When the 18 months are up, the trust fund board can decide whether to continue funding the position or seek to include it in the city budget, Fox said.
But, like the members of the Board of Finance eight months ago, the members of the trust fund board rejected the position. Two voted for it and four were opposed.
Board member Frances Lane said the job is too broad. It includes managing the Below Market Rate rental program, administering the trust fund, working with the community development office, monitoring projects, initiating funding requests, and reaching out to the public.
The coordinator will be overwhelmed by just one of those duties – helping BMR tenants resolve problems with private landlords, Lane said.
“As someone who lives in public housing, I’m not hearing that everyone understands that there is a crisis in BMR,” Lane said. “This would be a great position if we didn’t have a crisis.”
BMR tenants face eviction, landlords who refuse to renew leases or make repairs, exorbitant rent hikes, mold infestation and other health and safety problems, Lane said. On top of that, prospective tenants sit on long waiting lists, she said.
“People who are about to be evicted are not being directed toward Social Services or the Fair Rent Commission. By the time they figure out what to do, they are in housing court … and having to pay legal fees,” Lane said.
The housing coordinator won’t have time for administrative duties, Lane said.
“The person in this position is going to be working full time with those who are being threatened with eviction,” Lane said. “This is not the right position for this time.”
If a job is to be funded, “it has to have enforcement,” Lane said.
Her fellow trust fund board member, David Stein, who chairs the Zoning Board, had a question about enforcement.
Stein asked whether the housing coordinator will “have any legal authority to issue a violation or force a building owner to make a correction.”
No, said Director of Operations Matt Quinones, a member of Simmons’ cabinet. “This person is a liaison … who should know the health and building codes” and contact those departments for tenants facing issues, Quinones said.
There’s another problem, said trust fund board member Laura Burwick, who also sits on the Board of Finance. The Affordable Housing Trust Fund “was built with the idea to expand the amount of affordable housing or preserve the stock of existing housing,” Burwick said. The board should not “start taking money out to pay for positions – that’s the city’s responsibility,” Burwick said.
“I strongly urge the administration to follow the proper channels and put this in a budget. People share the goal to alleviate the housing problem, so you will be heard,” Burwick told Fox and Quinones. “It bothers me that this circumvents the Board of Representatives … it should go through the budget process … I am voting strongly against funding this position out of the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.”
Ralph Blessing, chair of the trust fund board and chief of the city’s Land Use Bureau, said he understands the point that trust fund money should be used for building housing.
But having a coordinator would be the first step toward creating a housing department, he said. Stamford didn’t have an employee dedicated solely to housing until July, when Emily Gordon, former director of housing and community development, became principal housing planner, Blessing said.
The $150,000 to fund the salary and benefits of a housing coordinator for 18 months “is a relatively small amount … I don’t think it will erode the ability to build housing. There is more than $3 million in the trust fund now, and we expect up to $20 million through projects that have already been approved. So it’s justifiable to use a relatively small portion of the trust fund for this position,” Blessing said.
When the Board of Finance approved the $122,000 principal housing planner job now held by Gordon, and cut the housing coordinator job, members said they wanted to see what would be accomplished with one before funding the other. They also cut multiple other positions Simmons wanted to create, citing the administration’s decision to increase 24 salaries by reclassifying the jobs rather than seeking the raises through normal budget procedures.
Cities elsewhere in Connecticut and the country have housing departments that drive efforts to create affordable units, renovate existing units, pursue grants and other funding, administer voucher programs, enforce housing codes, and launch home-ownership and similar initiatives.
Stamford has Charter Oak Communities, a nonprofit that works with other government and non-government agencies as well as private partners to create and manage affordable housing units.
Quinones said he questions the “short-sightedness” of Affordable Housing Trust Fund board members for failing to finance the “critical role” of housing coordinator.
“We tried to do this through the operating budget and now we’re trying through an alternative route to fund this position … it’s frustrating,” Quinones said. “If this is not the approach to get us where we need to be, we’ll try another route.”