JOHN FABRIZI – Brought regularity

It’ll cost you about half as much to buy a home in Bridgeport as it will almost anywhere else in Fairfield County, but according to Money magazine, that might bode well for the city’s real estate market in the long run.

Bridgeport made CNN’s and Money magazine’s latest national list of top 10 places to buy a home. The publication named 10 cities that could offer good opportunities despite the overall decline in the real estate market. The list’s entry for Bridgeport cited the spread of wealth throughout Fairfield County, and noted that as more businesses have left New York for Greenwich and Stamford, more middle-class workers have arrived in the city, looking to take advantage of Bridgeport’s relatively low prices.

“The last place you’d expect to find undervalued real estate is in tony Fairfield County, home to ultra-exclusive towns like Greenwich and Darien, where the Masters of the Universe retreat after a tough day on Wall Street,” according to Money. “But a mere 20 miles up the coast lies the hardscrabble city of Bridgeport, which has long suffered from sleazy politics and urban decay but is finally cleaning up its act.”

Despite Bridgeport’s checkered past, the real estate market there has been steady for some time. It has always been a destination for immigrants. Greater Bridgeport Board of Realtors President Mark Trojanowski said he remembers an influx of Vietnamese immigrants in the 1970s, after the Vietnam War. His own grandfather had come to Bridgeport from Ireland 100 years earlier.

“That’s been the history of the town,” Trojanowski said.

Low home prices always have been a reason for that trend, he noted.

“We’re a nice entry-level town. There is more diversity of properties,” he added.

According to statistics from The Warren Group, parent company of The Commercial Record, the median price for a single-family home in 2005 was less than half of the median price of the county at large. The median price in Bridgeport was $252,000, while the median price in all of Fairfield County was $520,000. That trend has been in evidence for several years, and the pace of appreciation in Bridgeport has been slower than in the county.

The real estate market has been steady for years, despite the city’s reputation for crime and corruption.

“It moves forward in spite of what goes on in politics,” Trojanowski said.

But the “sleazy politics,” as Money magazine put it, have affected the city’s image.

“We’ve seen a lot of ups and downs and a lot of things come and go,” Trojanowski said.

The city’s former mayor was convicted in 2003 of racketeering, extortion and other crimes, so when current Mayor John Fabrizi came on board, “a lot of city government was broken,” according to his spokeswoman, Caryn Kaufman. Many members of city boards and commissions had left town or retired, and some of the boards were not meeting at all due to the lack of a quorum.

Kaufman said when Fabrizi took office, he brought more regularity to the city government, with the appointment of professionals as department heads. That, in turn, has encouraged development.

“For real estate developers and homeowners, it’s helped them go through the regulatory process with some expectation of how long it’s going to take,” Kaufman said. “All of these [changes] have sent very strong signals to the development community that he is serious about wanting to change the way Bridgeport does business.”

‘Jaws Drop’

Changes can be seen in several areas of the city, Kaufman said. Old buildings downtown are being torn down or redeveloped, and the city is building five new schools.

“For the first time you have buildings that have been shuttered for 10, 15, 20 years that are being redeveloped into housing,” she noted.

The mayor has been taking residents and developers on “trolley tours” to show them the new developments in town. Many Bridgeport residents tend to stay in their own neighborhoods, Kaufman said.

“People’s jaws drop because they haven’t been downtown in 20 or 30 years,” she said.

The west end of town, along State Street, used to be home to decrepit and vacant factories. Many of those have been torn down to make room for future development, and operating manufacturing companies have moved into the area.

“When you drive down State Street, it’s a different street,” she said.

Such development is helping to change the image of the city, Trojanowski said.

“Is the image changing? I would say yes,” he noted.

Most people who drive through Bridgeport are going down Interstate 95, he said, and for years the only side of the city visible to the highway was the run-down manufacturing. But now some of those structures have come down to be replaced by office buildings as Bridgeport is more affected by the global economy. That changes the way people see the city, Trojanowski said.

“That perception is changing,” he said.

The state of residential housing in the city also is changing, which may help to drive appreciation. The city had a problem with absentee landlords not taking care of their properties. Fabrizi passed anti-blight legislation that gives sweeping powers to the city to go onto property owners’ land and cite them at $100 a day for not complying to city laws.

That has resulted in major cleanups of properties, Kaufman said.

“You can see on entire streets that the dynamic is changing,” she said.

The city also is encouraging first-time homebuyers to get into the real estate market with incentives.

“There’s a momentum that’s changing here,” Kaufman said.

She added that agrees with Money’s assessment of the city. The real estate market “has been wild,” she said, and Fairfield County is maxed out. The city’s government is amenable to development and growth, so people are looking to Bridgeport for opportunities.

“It’s getting harder and harder for people to afford the towns surrounding Bridgeport,” Kaufman said.

There also has been a surge in residential development. The price difference between the city and the rest of the county is similar to that of single-family homes – statistics from The Warren Group show that the 2005 median price of a condominium in Bridgeport was $145,000, while the price in Fairfield County was $291,000.

Many old office and industrial buildings are being redeveloped into small condo projects, and some larger ones, including a 105-unit building located near the edge of town, are under construction.