'The time for bold action is now': Advocates call for more affordable housing money at Westport rally

Photo of Amanda Cuda

WESTPORT — Denise Williams knows the power of stories.

So when the chief executive of Stamford-based Inspirica — which provides services to the homeless throughout Connecticut — spoke in front of dozens of people on Jesup Green in Westport on Wednesday as part of a rally to support more funds for affordable housing, she told the story of Melanie.

Melanie was the mother of six children who worked as a supervisor for a distribution center, she said. When Melanie’s living situation became “unsafe,” Williams said, she sought shelter with Inspirica. The agency managed to secure a housing voucher for Melanie, but Williams said the mother still hasn’t found a home she can afford.

“Whenever something came on the market that was within her (voucher’s) limit, it disappeared as quickly as it came online,” said Williams. “If Melanie is struggling to find housing with a subsidy, can you imagine how other families are struggling?”

Williams was one of several social service providers and advocates who spoke at the rally, which aimed to raise awareness of a lack of affordable housing in Fairfield County and to alert state legislators to what advocates a growing housing crisis.

The rally was organized by representatives of multiple entities, including Westport’s Department of Human Services, the Westport Housing Authority and Homes with Hope, a Westport-based organization dedicated to ending homelessness in Fairfield County.

At the event’s start, Elaine Daignault, Westport director of human services, said she knows many people don’t see homelessness as a problem affecting suburban communities such as Westport. But, she said, homelessness affects everyone.

“Housing insecurity isn’t limited to urban areas,” Daignault said. “It affects thousands of families and individuals every day.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the housing crisis even worse, she said, as it has put more people in “survival mode” in many respects — from mental health to physical health, to finding employment and securing housing.

During the rally, Westport First Selectman Jim Marpe read a call to action, stating that the town and its officials would work to “prevent and end homelessness.”

Throughout the event, speakers asked state legislators to allocate significant financial resources from the state’s $300 million unallocated 2021 American Rescue Plan Act funds toward affordable housing.

“That money can really be a game-changer for the whole state, including Fairfield County,” Daignault said.

Several state legislators were present at the rally, including state Sen. Tony Hwang and state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg.

Additionally, representatives of state and local agencies spoke at the rally about how much of the ARPA funding should be allocated to affordable housing.

In her speech, Chelsea Ross deputy director of the Hartford-based Partnership for Strong Communities, asked that $196.6 million of the funds be allocated to affordable housing. At least $150 million of that should go toward providing gap funding to support mixed-income development proposals that include units affordable at 30 percent of the average median income, she said.

Another speaker, Christie Stewart, director of Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity, asked that the entire $300 million be put toward affordable housing.

“The time for bold action is now,” she said.