The Cornwall Housing Plan Committee held a public forum on May 24th (via Zoom) in order to outline the work it has completed to date, present its findings, and encourage public input in the affordable housing plan mandated by the state to “specify how the municipality intends to increase the number of affordable housing developments.”

The nine-person committee – which has been holding monthly public meetings since January (the meetings and supporting data can be viewed at the town website – has gathered a tremendous amount of data, on town and county demographics, housing profiles, income, trends, etc., and framed the presentation with a simple question: Where will the future of Cornwall come from?

The answer to that question centers around affordable housing. Providing affordable housing will not only allow young people to remain in town, but will also provide places for a growing senior population – many of whom will need to downsize – to stay. Nearly half of all residents between the ages of 20-30 in Litchfield County live at home (according to a pre-pandemic study), the highest rate in the US. Connecticut’s Legislative Commission on Aging reported that Cornwall will have the highest percentage of seniors of any town in the state by 2025. The housing issue affects all age groups, however. Selectwoman Marina Kotchoubey discussed the fact that like many of her 30-something peers, she is only able to stay in town due to family-owned property.

The committee also discussed the need to create a diversity of housing types in town. More than 96% of all homes in Cornwall are single family dwellings (compared to 76% in Litchfield County).

The plan (due in June 2022) has a stated goal of providing 25 additional affordable housing units over the next 10 years, reflecting one of the goals of the town’s Conservation and Development Plan (adopted in 2020).

What is affordable? State law 8-30g defines it as costing less than 30% of household income 80% or less than area median income. This translates to $1436 in monthly mortgage/rent and utilities for an individual ($2052 for a four-person household), or an annual income of $57,000 (or $82,080 for a four-person household). Cornwall currently has 3% of units meeting the affordable definition (only North Canaan has achieved the 10% requirement in our region).

Litchfield County has become more expensive in the past 5 years, with Cornwall houses selling for a median price of $547,500 last year (only Salisbury was more expensive, at $646,000), almost $250,000 above the state’s median sale price.

As housing has become more expensive, wage disparity in town has grown. While our median income has increased consistent with state-wide numbers, the Cornwall poverty rate has seen a dramatic rise, up 180% from 2000-2017 (compared to 25% increase in CT).

The pandemic has been a boon for sellers, but it has placed pressure on many homeowners and renters in town. Social Services Director Heather Dinneen reported that $25,000 was spent by the Food and Fuel Fund for rent/mortgage assistance in the past year, about 25% of its budget. She also related that a couple of Cornwall residents were displaced from sold homes and had to relocate to homeless shelters for a time.

Affordable housing would not only ease the financial pressure on individuals, it would also ease cost burdens on the community. According to numerous studies, affordable housing has direct benefits to the local economy. With less money going to housing costs, more money is put back into local businesses.

Ron Goldstein from National Iron Bank discussed some innovative financing proposals designed to help first-time home owners.

Affordable housing has been an important part of our community for more 30 years. Patsy Van Doren identified it as a key issue in 1986 and addressed the issue through changes in Planning and Zoning in 1988. The 18-unit Kugeman Village was built in 1992, with land purchased through funds donated by Lois and William Kugeman, and a grant and loan from the CT Dept. of Housing. The 10-unit nonprofit Bonney Brook was established in 2010 through community fundraising (for the land), HUD grants and tax credits. Eight other units in town also qualify as affordable.

There is a strong demand for affordable housing in our area; as of November 2020, the waitlist was 1,520 people. Bonney Brook has a waitlist of 10 people, with an estimated wait time of 2-5 years.

As a video produced by Ted Perotti about housing efforts in the NW corner – shown at the end of the forum – stated, we can’t control gas prices, we can’t control food prices, but we can, as a town, provide reasonably priced housing. According to the data presented by the committee, our future depends on it.

—Gregory Galloway

📷: Cornwall Housing Committee

Cornwall Housing Committee