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Mixed reactions at housing hearing

FALLS VILLAGE — Proponents of an affordable housing project in town are taking a second stab at obtaining $1 million in funding through a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) that would be earmarked for infrastructure work at River Road Homes, a proposed 16-unit affordable rental housing development.

An hour-long public hearing on the CDBG infrastructure proposal took place via Zoom on Monday, May 2, and drew close to 50 participants. The forum included introductions by First Selectman Henry Todd, an overview of the Falls Village Housing Trust, Inc. by Tracy Atwood, summary of the grant process by David Berto, CDBG Grant Consultant, and an overview of River Road Homes by trust member Eric Carlson.

In addition, Miguel Rivera, director of Housing and Community Development at the Connecticut Department of Housing, answered questions.

“I will say that you are a model community for resident participation,” Rivera told those in attendance. “I have never gotten so many calls about a community in the state in all my years on this job. You have a good, active voice in this project, and I am excited about that.”

‘Not the time and place’ for debate

In opening the public hearing, Todd explained that the purpose of the meeting was to inform the community about a CDBG project proposal that the Falls Village Housing Trust is applying for to do infrastructure work at River Road Homes. “This is not the time and place to debate River Road Homes,” he noted.

Berto said the grants are designed around three goals: to promote and enhance fair housing and fair housing choice; to expand and preserve decent and affordable housing; and to promote and enhance suitable living environments. “These goals align with this project,” he said.

The consultant also noted that, in total, approximately $12 million is available through the grant to small towns throughout Connecticut, and that the amount being requested for Falls Village is approximately $1 million.

“The grantee is the Town of Canaan. They will apply for the funds, receive the funds and then pass them on to the Falls Village Housing Trust as a sub-recipient,” said Berto, who noted that his role, as consultant, is to aid the town throughout the application and distribution process.

Atwood, representing the Housing Trust, made it clear that CDBG funding is awarded to the municipality on behalf of a nonprofit, which means that “the town oversees the administration of the funds. This ensures that all funds are spent as needed.”

Mix of support, concern from public

Resident Daly Reville raised concerns about potential financial liability to the town. “I would like to make the comment that this project has never been approved by the legislative body of the Town of Canaan” and that any funds that are committed to the River Road Homes project, she said, is akin to “putting the cart before the horse.”

The liability issue to the town and taxpayers was also raised by Denise Cohn, who asked for specifics on the total cost of the project. Berto said, “We do not have the total cost because we are applying for the funds for infrastructure,” and the full price tag will follow once that phase is underway. He further noted that a contingency fund will be set aside to cushion any cost changes.

Kathy Clark suggested that the construction project be undertaken in smaller, multiple phases. “I have a really hard time thinking that we have a project of this size, to which we are committing $1.3 million, and you have no idea what the rest of the cost will be” to bring it to occupancy.

Responding to questions about taxpayer liability, “We will ask for a bond to protect us,” said Todd. “If we get more kids in this town, sure it would have an effect on Region One, but it will also be a benefit to this town because no town can survive if it doesn’t have children in it.”

Resident Colter Rule questioned the scope and location of the affordable housing project. “I think this project is too big.” He noted that four Habitat for Humanity houses already exist at Lime Rock Station.

Rivera, the state’s director of housing and community development, said the infrastructure application failed last year because, “We did not have the support from the state to fund a lot of projects we would have liked to,” and that the amount of funding awarded was only around $8.5 million, significantly lower than previous years.

‘We are really
at a crisis point’

Support for the River Road Homes funding, and for affordable housing, was also voiced at the public hearing.

Kevin O’Connell, CEO of Geer Village Senior Community in North Canaan, said he has been attending affordable housing hearings and meetings around the Northwest Corner to speak to the needs of local employers. At one point, pre-pandemic, Geer Village employed close to 325 employees. Today, he said, that number is around 250.

“I could probably hire 30 RNs and LPNs right now at Geer alone,” said O’Connell. The Geer CEO also cited similar worker shortages at Sharon Hospital and other health-care agencies in the area. “I am talking about RNs making $80,000 to $90,000. They are not low-paid jobs we are trying to fill. If people could get their roots settled, it could turn into home ownership. It has become almost impossible to attract people to drive out to this neck of the woods; we really are at a crisis point. We need affordable housing, it really is that critical.”

Olivia Wadsworth, 22, said she is currently employed at Hamilton Books in town, and “intends to stay there a long time. I would love to take advantage of affordable housing and move out of my parents’ house, because I can’t afford a home right now.“

Carla Galaise, a member of the Falls Village Housing Trust, said she was born and raised in town, but currently lives in Torrington because of a lack of affordable housing options in Falls Village.

“The town is suffering by not being able to support young families like me. I really think our town is missing out. I am a huge supporter of this project, and I think everything in town revolves around affordable housing.”

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