Housing Fair held at Geer
NORTH CANAAN — It is a generally accepted fact of life in the Northwest Corner that housing is expensive. It is also generally accepted as fact that many of the volunteers who support the towns’ vital emergency services and fill many government seats are struggling to find a way to own or keep a home here.The option for many has been to move away. And towns are feeling the pinch.To address this dual problem, the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation has established HousingUs, which connects first-time homebuyers with local nonprofits, including housing trusts and Habitat for Humanity. The foundation also offers resources to help buyers find ways and means to afford housing here. It is partnering with the Housing Development Fund (HDF), allowing HDF to expand north and encompass all of Litchfield County. The nonprofit, based in Stamford, Conn., was established in 1989. It now serves Fairfield, New Haven and Litchfield counties, as well as Westchester County in New York. HDF recently opened an office at the Foundation for Community Health in Sharon.At the Housing Fair held at Geer Village in North Canaan on Nov. 16, representatives from both organizations, Habitat and town housing trusts were on hand to offer information and answer questions.The focus for HDF is on first-time home buyers. Many need the financial counseling it provides. They can also arrange down-payment assistance.“We are a HUD-approved counseling agency,” said Program Manager Mary Alice Dinho. “Much of what we do is about removing the barriers to buying a home, such as credit scores and collections. We work with people to get them to qualify for a mortgage, get a down payment and even work with them online. “We also help people avoid foreclosure, which is, of course, a big issue right now.”Statistics on the HDF website paint a fairly bleak picture of the state’s housing situation.• 51 percent of residents spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In the last 10 years, the state’s average rent has increased six times more than the average renter’s income.• In 112 towns, a family earning the state’s median income cannot afford a median-priced home.• Home sale prices have increased 49.1 percent in the last decade.Surprisingly, there are not a lot of people asking for help.Salisbury Housing Trust board President Leo Gafney said they actually have to go out and drum up applicants for their affordable housing program, which builds two- and three-bedroom homes to be sold below current median sale prices.“A lot of what we need to get past is people who have rented their entire lives and don’t see themselves as homeowners,” Gafney said.He hesitated to add another issue, but said, “There is a lot of unreported income. People provide services for cash, such as home repairs and cutting wood. It’s a way for some to survive financially. Most are doing alright with that extra income, but it doesn’t appear they make enough to get a mortgage.”Soon to come for HDF is the Landlord Entrepreneurship & Affordability Program (LEAP). It will assist Northwest Corner residents in acquiring properties that could be a source of income and provide affordable rentals; provide training in how to be a landlord; and find financing for renovation and clean energy projects. It would focus on foreclosed properties and those in foreclosure, and could help families stay in their homes as renters.Accessory apartments as a means of income and maximizing housing space here is a focus of HousingUs and its program coordinator, Jocelyn Ayer. She is already well-known here as the senior planner for the Northwestern Connecticut Planning Collaborative. Apartments can be created in homes or barns or over garages, turning existing space into a means of income and affordable living for renters. HousingUs is willing to help with all aspects, from design and zoning compliance to financing and ways to find good tenants.For an online application to get started with the Housing Development Fund, go to www.hdf-ct.org, or call 203-798-6527 (Danbury office).For information on the accessory apartments program, go to www.housingus.org, or call 413-229-0370 x105.Information on housing programs in various towns is available at local town halls.