Jacqueline Stevens returned to Fairfield County after graduating from Rosemont College in Pennsylvania and faced the same question many graduates run up against in the years immediately following the completion of their degrees: Where can I afford to live?
For Stevens, a Norwalk resident who now resides with her family in one of the 56 affordable units at 80 Fair St., it wasn't an easy question to answer.
Stevens grew up in Queens, N.Y., and her husband in Bridgeport. Both saw first-hand the detrimental effects poorly planned housing complexes can have on children and families.
"With my two children, I would never want to live in a place that isn't safe," she said.
But Stevens, who now works for PricewaterhouseCoopers, was fortunate enough to discover the affordable workforce housing at 80 Fair St., recently opened by New Neighborhoods Inc., Fairfield County's oldest active nonprofit rental and ownership housing developer.
"This has been the best move there could have been," she said, adding that, because of the affordable nature of the development, she and her husband can now save money to one day purchase a home.
Among other tenants, Stevens attended an informal open house at the development Monday morning alongside Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia, and representatives from New Neighborhoods and the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce.
Jasmine Hardy, also a tenant, said 80 Fair St. is a safe, diversified community, complete with comfortable one- and two-bedroom apartments, a community room, patio and exercise center.
"We all build relationships with people that will last forever," Hardy said of the tight-knit community.
"This is a great example of how public and private can work together," New Neighborhoods president and CEO Ross Burkhardt said. He said 10 of the units have been reserved for veterans.
A stumbling economy combined with land and home prices that remain relatively high in the more affluent areas of Fairfield County mean more and more people are struggling to find a location where they can work and live.
High incomes in Fairfield County don't "mean that everyone can afford to live in Fairfield County," said Ed Musante, president of the Greater Norwalk Chamber of Commerce, who called for more developments like 80 Fair St..
Many people hold on to common misconceptions about the quality and safety of affordable housing developments, Musante said, even with attractive, safe and modernized developments becoming more common.
"They hear affordable housing, and they have a different thought in their mind," he said.
Himes called for residents of 80 Fair St. to invite people to the development to dispel some of the misconceptions that still surround affordable housing units today.
"Invite people to come see what the new affordable housing means," he said. "We want mixed-income, vibrant communities."
Himes also explained that as a former employee of an affordable housing non-profit, he believes that we "must do all we can to ensure affordable, quality housing for all Americans."
He added, "In the last 15 years, we have lost 150,000 units from our stock of public and assisted housing through sale or demolition. We must do more to give Americans the certitude they need that housing will be both affordable and available. NNI is leading the way in ensuring affordable, quality housing for our workforce."
Himes is a member of the Livable Communities Task Force in Congress. The 26-member task force supports efforts to help make communities more "livable" by providing more transportation choices, promoting equitable and affordable housing, enhancing economic competitiveness, and reinvesting in existing communities so that families will be safer, enjoy greater personal and environmental health and have greater access to educational and economic opportunities.
Moccia explained that there will be plenty of affordable housing units available in the 95/7, Norwalk Town Center and Wall Street developments slated for Norwalk. Reinvigorating the concept of the neighborhood and fostering a "neighborly atmosphere" are crucial to the vibrancy of any city, he said.
"This can be the result across Norwalk and hopefully Fairfield County," he said.