Out of the Woods / Increase affordable housing
It's high time that Westport awakened to its decades-old need for affordable housing.
The concept has been kicking around ever since the late 1960s when I arrived in Westport, at a time when the Planning and Zoning Commission first proposed low-cost housing for our town but was turned back by strong Oposition -- including from this writer.
Four decades have passed since my initial response to "save" Westport as it was and turn back proposals that would change it in any way -- like affordable apartments, bus transportation, building on the Post Road and anything else that would change the character of the town I found here in 1968. Looking back with perspective, I've revised my view from 1968 when I felt, "I'm here, now close the gates." The aging process does affect one's thinking.
Much of my change of heart is due to the fact that I have had the honor of digging into Westport's past to write its full and varied history. From that experience I learned that, over the years, Westport has always embraced change -- although, at times, reluctantly after a big fuss. But, from the outset when Westport was founded in 1835, we have been a town that welcomes all folks who want to move here and join our diverse community.
Now, some 32 years later since I came to town, with all the changes that Westport has undergone, I enthusiastically support the need for a plan that would permit the construction of 66 units -- or more -- of one- and two-bedroom rental units of affordable housing on Baron's South. The housing would be for seniors who want to stay here in their later years but cannot afford to, for town employees, and for anyone else who is eligible. More than half of the units would be dedicated to people earning $50,000 or less.
In the name of achieving diversity, I am also in favor of converting the unoccupied Baron's mansion into a skilled nursing facility with 84 beds, private bathrooms and a den/spa. The plan would also include assisted living services like prepared meals, hospice care and housekeeping. These services would be offered possibly in partnership with the town and a nonprofit agency. No proposal for this partnership has yet been filed.
What better way could there be to meet the very real needs of many people who work in town but cannot afford to live here? Or to help seniors remain in the town to which they have contributed so much?
I now realize that if we are going to become the diverse town that we want to be, building housing that newcomers and current town employees, retirees, and minority group families can afford is not just a nice thing to do; it's an absolute necessity.
The plan has been introduced by First Selectman Gordon Joseloff and Second Selectwoman Shelly Kassen, both of whom should be commended for taking this progressive step to meet a major need in our community. In light of Westport's tradition of NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard), there will no doubt be opposition from members of our community. Already one Planning and Zoning (P&Z) commissioner has raised the prospect of keeping the land as undeveloped as possible.
And, the use of this open space leased out for $1 a year has already drawn fire from some P&Z commissioners. There is no question that this will probably turn into yet another epic Westport battle, like so many others in the past that involved change in the character of our community. However, if we are to make progress in the 21st century, change must be a given.
For the plan to really succeed, however, I would argue for a larger complex of apartments that could accommodate twice as many people than the plan now proposes. If we are going to do the right thing, let's do it right. We might as well try to meet all of the needs of those people who need housing here. The plan should be expanded and have a bigger foot print. Open space should be a secondary issue here.
We are at a crossroads in Westport as we begin a new century. It is my hope that historians of the future will look back on this era of our town and write about how the library has turned into a town cultural center; how the Westport Historical Society has taken bold steps to bring more people into its exhibits and programs celebrating our history; and, how the town's efforts toward improving the racial diversity of Westport came to fruition.
Certainly, private organizations like TEAM, led by Harold Bailey and originally launched by former First Selectwoman Diane Goss Farrell, have made some progress in the schools and in other local public and private institutions in fostering a better understanding of diversity and explaining how it would benefit all Westporters.
I see this new affordable housing movement -- yet to be approved by the P&Z -- as a major step forward in continuing Westport's inclusive tradition and its history of accepting everyone who seeks to live here or to continue to remain here.
Like many other changes we have seen in our town, building affordable would add to its attractiveness as a leading-edge, 21st century town in Connecticut.