Among the projects funded by the Stamford-based Housing Development Fund Inc. was the rehabilitation of the Saugatuck School in Westport, which resulted in 36 affordable units for senior citizens.

It has helped transform an old, run-down Westport school into apartments for senior citizens, its staff has counseled Fairfield County residents on the realities of owning a home and it has made it possible for nearly 270 families to buy their first house. And this month, the Housing Development Fund Inc. celebrated its 15th anniversary.

The Housing Development Fund, a Stamford-based, $25 million loan fund supported by 15 lenders, was founded in 1989 with the backing of eight banks. The group provides permanent financing and predevelopment loans for developers building or rehabilitating affordable housing; the Adopt-A-House program, which provides down-payment assistance to first-time homebuyers; and other programs.

“We’ve grown the pool for multifamily housing,” said Joan Carty, the fund’s executive director.

The group started out in Stamford, but has expanded to all of Fairfield County, where there is a dire need for more affordable housing.

“In Fairfield County, we’re probably thousands of units shy of having a balanced environment,” Carty said.

Fairfield County’s lack of available land has resulted in high housing prices, said fund Board President and First County Bank Senior Vice President Reyno Giallongo Jr., in a news release.

“Affordable housing for the workforce of Fairfield County has become a critical public policy issue,” Giallongo said. “Because Fairfield County has little available land, real estate prices have escalated and the average worker has been forced to commute from further distances. This produces congested roads and highways while accelerating urban sprawl and open space depletion. The initiatives undertaken by the Housing Development Fund Inc. have become ever more important to the residents of our region, as well as their employers. Indeed, this is a critical issue for the future economic vitality of Fairfield County.”

‘A Bigger Impact’

The lack of available housing for people who make between $40,000 to $100,000 a year forces Fairfield County businesses to look farther away for their workers, said Joseph McGee, vice president of public policy and commerce at the Southeastern Area Commerce & Industry Association of Connecticut.

“[Affordable housing] is one of our top five issues,” said McGee, who is also a board member of the Housing Development Fund. “More and more, we find we have to go farther afield [to find workers] … For middle-class workers, there’s a huge dearth of housing.”

Many workers in Fairfield County are coming from outside the area, he said.

Eighteen percent of the workers are from Westchester County, while others come from the Bronx in New York or the Bridgeport area.

The extra reverse commuters put a strain on Fairfield County’s transportation system and add to heavy traffic, McGee said.

Most workers still live in the area, but it’s hard for them to find housing.

“There’s a huge market for [medium-priced housing],” McGee said.

According to 2002 affordable housing statistics from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development, four of Fairfield County’s 23 cities and towns had more than 10 percent affordable housing in their housing stocks.

Bridgeport had about 20.5 percent affordable housing, and Stamford, Norwalk and Danbury had about 12 percent.

The DECD tracks the percentage of affordable housing for towns and cities throughout the state because of the appeals law, Section 8-30g, which applies to cities and towns with less than 10 percent affordable housing.

The law allows developers building housing where residents can use financial assistance from the government, or developments where more than 30 percent of the units will be affordable, to appeal to the state if the city or town board that reviews the plans denies them or asks for a lot of changes.

Fourteen of the cities and towns had between zero and 3 percent affordable housing, according to the DECD’s 2002 statistics.

Redding came in last in the state, with zero percent affordable housing.

Weston came in second-to-last, with residents taking advantage of one governmentally assisted unit and one Connecticut Housing and Finance Authority mortgage, leaving the town with 0.06 percent affordable housing.

Sherman, Easton and Monroe also came in with less than 1 percent affordable housing. Redding, Weston, Sherman and Easton are the smallest communities in the county.

But some of Fairfield County’s towns are closer to realizing the 10 percent cut-off, according to the DECD.

Bethel and Stratford both had more than 6 percent affordable housing.

Greenwich, Newtown, Shelton, Fairfield, Trumbull, Wilton, Westport, Brookfield, Ridgefield, New Canaan, New Fairfield and Darien had between 1 percent and 4.5 percent affordable housing.

The fund has made loans for 34 projects that resulted in 354 affordable units, Carty said.

Most of the loans have gone toward rehabs.

“To date, [the Housing Development Fund] has processed a total of $20.5 million of first-mortgage multifamily lending to 34 borrowers, which has led to the preservation, rehabilitation and construction of 354 affordable rental-housing units in Lower Fairfield County,” Carty said in a release. “In addition, HDF has lent $320,000 in predevelopment funds to three borrowers, which is aiding in the preservation and construction of another 134 units.”

One of the most dramatic projects the group has funded was the rehabilitation of the Saugatuck School in Westport, which resulted in 36 affordable units for senior citizens.

“It’s a beautiful complex,” Carty said.

The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority also assisted in funding the Saugatuck complex. The CHFA often works with state and city programs to help fund projects, according to its Web site. Its staff provides feasibility analysis, loan structuring and business planning, and loan and project monitoring.

HDF staff members also counsel first-time homebuyers on the responsibilities and the process of buying a home.

“The excitement for us is helping people coming through the doors,” Carty said.

The group plans to introduce a new program next month that will provide low- and moderate-income, first-time homebuyers with loans for down payments.

“That should provide a bigger impact,” Carty said.

The Workforce Home Ownership Fund will provide loans to low- and moderate-income, first-time homebuyers. The loans will be up to $40,000, but won’t be for more than 20 percent of the price of the property. The loans will be taken out with a second mortgage on the property.

Organizers of the program believe it will help hundreds of families in Fairfield County buy homes.

HDF marked its anniversary on March 4 with a debate on affordable housing and open space.