Proposed apartment still thorny issue
The Fairfield City Council’s push to rezone the former Nelson Nursing Home on West Taylor Avenue has proven to be a thorny issue all spring and summer long.
John Kuster plans to turn the vacant building into an apartment complex capable of holding 19 units. However, to do that the council must change the building’s zoning from R-2 to R-3 because that level of density is not allowed under R-2 zoning.
At an earlier meeting, Kuster said one reason he wants to remodel the former nursing home is to create housing for SunnyBrook Nursing Home employees. Betty Howell, the founder of SunnyBrook, said her company employs a large number of single mothers who have a difficult time finding good housing, which is why she supports Kuster’s project.
After approving the first reading of the ordinance on a 7-0 vote April 8, the council tabled the ordinance upon hearing from neighbors of the former nursing home who were opposed to the rezoning. The council heard from more neighbors opposed to the project at its meeting Monday.
Two of the councilors, Daryn Hamilton and John Revolinski, said they changed their minds about the project after listening to the neighbors and thus voted against approving the second reading. The second reading still passed on a 4-2 vote.
Elizabeth Titze, who lives on South Eighth Street, said she feared the apartment complex would become subsidized housing. Titze said she recognized the sensitive nature of the debate considering some people might view her concerns as judgmental or discriminatory against families in need.
“I am not a stranger to families who struggle, and certainly not unsympathetic to their difficulties and needs,” she said.
Titze said she has worked as a Head Start advocate for immigrant families. She also serves as a mentor at Pence Elementary. Her own sister was a single mother with four children who lived most of her adult life in subsidized housing. Nevertheless, Titze said she also worries about how her neighborhood will change if the proposed apartment complex goes through.
Titze said Tyler Street has subsidized housing units, also near her house. She has had to call law enforcement several times because of activity at the housing units such as public intoxication, children roaming the streets unsupervised and loud profanity.
“I recognize not all residents in subsidized housing have problems with the law,” she said. “But I think it is naïve and dishonest to not admit there is a higher frequency of neighborhood problems that occur in these units.”
Kari Bedi, who also lives in South Eighth Street, said her neighbors have come together to oppose this project for the past four months. She is disappointed in what she sees as Kuster’s disregard for the neighbors’ wishes.
Bedi mentioned the existing subsidized housing in the area and expressed concern about additional subsidized housing. She said a concentration of subsidized housing is likely to lower property values in the area. She said some of her neighbors are considering selling their property if the apartment complex goes through.
After Titze and Bedi spoke, Fairfield city attorney John Morrissey advised the councilors they could not let the economic status of the apartment tenants influence their decision on the zoning. He said the Supreme Court considered this kind of discrimination “as bad as racism.”
Revolinski said he’s heard people say it’s better the building be put to use than for it to go back to the raccoons. He said he didn’t believe it would revert back to the raccoons. Furthermore, he said it’s not going to be healthy for people to be crammed into the apartment complex as densely as Kuster plans.
Hamilton said his main concern had nothing to do with the people who would live in the apartment but rather the sheer number of them and the effect they would have on traffic flow.
Paul Maiers, who lives on South Eighth Street, said he has heard conflicting reports about whether the apartment tenants would be privately or publically subsidized. He said he initially heard they would only receive private subsidization from SunnyBrook.
Kuster said Monday some of the residents are eligible for “Section 8,” which is a voucher used to pay for rent provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Kuster said he was not going to turn away potential tenants just because they qualified for Section 8. He said SunnyBrook may privately subsidize some residents although the firm hasn’t decided.
“A lot of these people aren’t able to live in Fairfield right now,” Kuster said. “I think they have a right to live in Fairfield and have affordable housing.”
Kuster said he was taken aback by neighbors who he perceived as fearful of “those people” living in their neighborhoods.
Councilor Michael Halley said he had never been more torn on an issue than this one.
“I understand the desire to keep [the neighborhood] as it is, to keep it quiet and low density,” Halley began. “When all this talk of these Section 8 people comes up and it’s this ‘they;’ there’s no ‘they.’ If you want a ‘they’ look at me. I grew up low-income and needed government assistance. It hurts me to think you wouldn’t want me or my family to be your neighbor, because we’re good people.”
Halley said the neighbors have rights and those rights are to their own property.
“There is also the right of these people who need affordable housing in this town,” he said. “If the need weren’t so dire, I probably wouldn’t be voting yes, but I hear over and over again people look for housing and can’t find it. We need more.”
Councilor Tony Hammes, who voted to pass the second reading of the ordinance, said the council must consider what is best for the city of Fairfield.
“What is best for the city of Fairfield? Is it the neighborhood as it is now with the building falling down, or is it with the building being reused for a good purpose?” he said.
Nancy Gaub, who lives on South Eighth Street, suggested a compromise between the neighbors and Kuster. She said if Kuster renovated the building and turned it into senior housing, the opposition to the project would “evaporate.” She said the neighbors are worried about the apartment tenants being too loud.
Kuster said he does not believe traffic from the apartment will bother residents on Eighth Street because he thinks most vehicles will travel on Taylor Avenue instead. He said the traffic will not be very different from when the building was a nursing home.