clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Life during the COVID-19 pandemic

Filed under:

A fight over housing segregation is dividing one of America’s most liberal states

Who gets to live in Connecticut?

A single-family home in New Canaan, Connecticut.
| Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Connecticut is run by Democrats. It has a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, a Democratic majority in the House and a supermajority in the Senate, and its entire congressional delegation is Democratic.

It’s also embroiled in a debate over whether the state’s own legal firmament is diametrically opposed to the Democratic Party’s long-stated support for civil rights, economic opportunity for all, and equality under the law.

The fight is over whether Connecticut’s towns and cities need to change the rules that dictate what types of homes can be built and where. Currently, it is illegal to build anything other than single-family homes in the majority of the state — over 90 percent of zoned land is set aside for single-family housing.

These homes are necessarily more expensive than other types of homes, like duplexes, multiplexes, townhomes, and apartments. There are also other rules, such as the number of parking spaces you have to build per home, or restrictions on the height of your property, or bans on allowing homeowners to build a separate small structure in their backyard. All of these rules have the effect of fewer homes being built, even as demand continues to grow.

A large single-family home in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

One Greenwich town selectman railed against proposed reforms that would increase housing production as “a heavy-handed assault on every single municipality in the state of Connecticut.”

This overwrought rhetoric is commonplace. Former Republican candidate for governor Tim Herbst vowed, “If this legislation is passed and if the governor signs this into law, I’m telling all of you, Republican and Democrat alike, I believe you are going to see a bipartisan uprising in this state, the likes of which you have never seen.”

Nevertheless, housing advocates are pressing Democrats to take action. Longstanding groups like Open Communities Alliance (OCA) and the Connecticut Fair Housing Center have been working on housing issues including zoning reform for decades.

But a newer group, Desegregate CT, has dominated the debate this year. Formed in June 2020 by University of Connecticut law professor Sara Bronin, after George Floyd’s killing sparked nationwide protests around civil rights and police reform, Desegregate CT has pressed forward with a bill that seeks to reform some localities’ zoning ordinances.

The group has built a wide-ranging coalition around a bill featuring local environmental groups and the state municipal league, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. This is no small coup — in California, where zoning reform has for decades been a political third rail, analogs of these groups have often been bitter opponents of statewide housing reforms that seek to increase housing production and reduce the power of local officials to obstruct the process.

But Desegregate CT has pushed forward without the backing of OCA or the Connecticut Fair Housing Center (the former has a bill of its own working its way through the state legislature). They are notable omissions considering their large cadre of supporters.

Questions linger about whether Desegregate CT’s bill would actually “desegregate” the state and if the group’s name is overselling the reforms packaged within the bill. Proponents of the legislation have noted that this is a “first step,” but in an interview with Vox, the group’s founder, Bronin, would not confirm whether the coalition would remain in operation after this legislative session. Desegregate CT website front page previously said that its bill, SB 1024, “contains all of our proposals,” signaling finality if it is signed into law but Bronin clarified Monday after publication that she considers the bill a “first step.”

Two fair-housing experts familiar with Connecticut told Vox that this legislation could allow legislators to believe they are done with the issue, and won’t spur further action to really ensure Connecticut’s housing rules are designed to remove barriers to building enough homes.

Bronin told Vox, “There are so many people who have been awakened to the importance of zoning on so many different aspects of life.” By linking zoning to issues like civil rights, economic opportunity, and environmental protection, Desegregate CT has brought an oft-ignored, sensitive issue to the fore in a state ripe for reform.

The group has received praise from lawmakers and advocacy groups alike for its work in building a diverse coalition and working to get input from wide-ranging voices.

But that consensus may have come at a cost.

Connecticut’s local zoning ordinances entrench class divides — and it’s creating new political fault lines

According to one measure by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Connecticut has the 15th-most regulated residential building environment. In doing so, it has confined poorer people to small parts of the state and likely discouraged countless more from ever moving to the state.

Another measure, the Opportunity Atlas created by Harvard University researchers, maps opportunity in the state. The map of Connecticut (pictured below) shows a sea of blue with pockets of dark red. Residents in the blue counties can expect their children to grow up and make a good living. But the map also reveals the segregationist effects of localities’ zoning policies. Poverty is concentrated in a few tiny pockets, so much so that in some of the red areas, a child born there could expect to grow up and have their household earn less than a third of what a child in a nearby dark blue area would earn.

One clear example of this is the capital city of Hartford, which NBC Connecticut reports has a poverty rate of 31.2 percent, while the surrounding suburbs see a poverty rate of 7.8 percent.

A map of expected household income for a child raised in various areas of Connecticut.
Opportunity Insights

By artificially restricting the supply of housing through onerous regulations, Connecticut has in effect driven up the cost of living for everyone and priced out lower- and middle-income Americans from living in most of its towns and cities. Simply put: fewer homes and growing demand mean higher prices for everyone.

As part of her “Segregated By Designseries, the Connecticut Mirror’s Jacqui Thomas reported that “more than three dozen towns in the state have blocked construction of any privately developed duplexes and apartments within their borders for the last two decades, often through exclusionary zoning requirements. In 18 of those towns, it’s been at least 28 years.” By creating these metaphorically walled enclaves, in addition to driving up the cost of housing for low-income people, localities have blocked lower-income families from finding housing in a place where their kids could attend good schools.

In recent years, as the crisis has become more acute, even the children of Connecticut homeowners may struggle to find a place to live in their home state (in New Haven County, home prices have risen 29.4 percent since last year one of the ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic was exacerbating existing national supply issues). As a result, the movement to relax these rules and allow for the development of more dense housing has taken hold. However, it has met staunch opposition along the way.

In a 24-hour bonanza of a hearing that began Monday, March 15, and stretched into Tuesday, 340 people waited patiently for their turn to speak about zoning reform and how they believe multi-family housing would impact their communities, as officials attempted to keep everyone to time. Proponents and opponents argued over local control, neighborhood character, whether certain Desegregate CT coalition members really supported the bill, racial justice, conservation, and more.

But what would the bill actually do?

What’s in the bill?

There’s tension between Desegregate CT’s ambitious name and the bill that one proponent referred to as “moderate.” On the one hand, the coalition calls the state “one of the most segregated places in the country.” On the other hand, many observers waver on how much this legislation would change about how Connecticut’s existing zoning laws segregate communities.

Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM), a nonpartisan organization that represents the towns and cities of the state, told Vox that his organization’s committee, which reviewed SB 1024’s proposals, was fully unanimous about each plank. Groups like CCM have been opposed to zoning reform in other states but have joined Desegregate CT’s coalition, ostensibly under the banner of racial and economic change. However, DeLong told Vox, “Frankly, I don’t believe that this set of proposals really has a whole lot to do with equity,” adding that in reality, the majority of the communities he represents would not see a huge change with the implementation of this legislation.

There are a few major components to the bill.

Statewide legalization of Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs): ADUs are small detached dwellings on existing properties, such as a converted garage, a basement apartment, or a tiny house in the backyard. Legalization of these homes has increased housing production in some California cities.

In Connecticut, these are already allowed in 92 percent of towns according to research by Desegregate CT’s founder, Bronin. But even in many of those jurisdictions, restrictions exist on when and where they can be built. Desegregate CT’s research shows that only 57 percent of single-family districts allow them “without costly public hearings or onerous requirements.” SB 1024 would ensure that ADUs would be legal as of right wherever there is a single-family home among other changes that seek to increase ADU production.

Setting caps on parking minimums: Often, localities set a minimum number of parking spaces per property, but those can often be in excess of the occupants’ need and encourage dependence on automobiles. Imagine a 20-unit apartment building that is required to have two parking spaces per unit — such a property would either become unnecessarily expensive due to the land needed for parking, or more likely than not, would just never get built.

Desegregate CT’s bill would cap parking requirements at what experts tell Vox is a reasonable level — zero for multi-family units near transit, one for studios or one-bedroom apartments, and two for two or more bedroom apartments. This wouldn’t ban additional parking if a developer feels like the property requires it, but it doesn’t unnecessarily force them to build potentially wasteful spots.

When asked about the bill’s potential, University of Connecticut professor of civil and environmental engineering Norman Garrick, an expert in transportation and urban planning, described it as a “small first step.”

“I mean if you’re talking about success in terms of desegregating the state, I think there are going to be many other steps that are needed to get to that goal,” Garrick said. “I think this is a small first step that is really bringing the conversation to the table.”

Salim Furth, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, was more blunt. He told Vox that the parking requirements likely wouldn’t have much of an effect because “most towns wouldn’t exceed [the new cap] anyway.”

Duplexes like these are illegal in most of Connecticut.
Bonnie Jo Mount/Getty Images

Legalize multi-family housing between two and four units near transit and along main streets: This is the part that has the greatest potential to change Connecticut’s housing landscape — by cutting much of the time-intensive, costly, and often unnecessary review from local planning authorities. Transit-oriented development and development along main streets encourages walkable communities where people can easily get to shops and other parts of the state. The specifics of the legislation would require localities to set aside 50 percent of land nearby transit for multi-family development.

However, Desegregate CT notes that “many, but not all, towns have already zoned the area around their transit stations using at least some of the kinds of zoning that we are proposing ...” which throws some cold water over the idea that their legislation could spark a great deal more housing being built.

The tricky politics of zoning reform

As Matthew Yglesias chronicled for Vox, former President Donald Trump attempted to make zoning reform a wedge issue during the 2020 election — warning the “‘suburban housewives of America’ that Biden ‘will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream.’” At a campaign event, Trump elaborated that under his watch, “There will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs.”

In most places, this didn’t become a salient campaign issue. But in Connecticut, Republicans saw an opportunity to capitalize on an issue that would divide the Democratic Party. Republicans warned that losing local control would allow cities to dictate zoning policy, campaigning under the name “Hands Off Our Zoning.” Democrats still picked up two seats in the Senate to gain a supermajority and gained several seats in the House, but they remain fearful that without Trump on the ballot in the coming years, a zoning message might become more striking to voters.

For all the consensus-building Desegregate CT did, it still received significant pushback at its 24-hour hearing. Allusions to neighborhood character and how “family towns” could be threatened by non-single-family homes were repeated during the hearing as well as multiple complaints that the bill would threaten “local control” (a charge which Yale Law professor David Schleicher answers, noting, “If anything, promoters of SB 1024 have done too little to push new housing growth, deferring to interests in towns and cities.”).

The reforms contained within SB 1024 are necessary, and the country would be better off if every state legalized ADUs, incentivized transit-oriented development, and put caps on parking minimums. But housing affordability and economic segregation, especially in the highest-opportunity corridors of the country, are massive problems. They will require years and years of work to convince local elected officials of the economic benefits of changing these rules and to assuage fears from homeowners about how the changes will affect their way of life.

In no way could this one bill be considered to hold “all of the proposals” of a group serious about desegregating the state. Following publication, Bronin emphasized that Desegregate CT agrees with this and is looking for ways to continue working on housing issues following the legislative session.

The level of pushback to even modest reforms might validate Desegregate CT’s approach — building a statewide coalition to make slow but steady change that won’t spook residents could be the only path to change. Some detractors worry that if the issue’s salience is going to provoke outrage, it’s worth it to get as much done as possible.

“Thinking in the suburban context, rapid change is going to get blowback and I would say gradual change is probably going to be more politically feasible in the long run,” Furth told Vox.

After all, Connecticut’s nickname is “The Land of Steady Habits.” Changing them is going to take time.

A 393-unit apartment building in Hamden, Connecticut, that is illegal to build in the majority of the state.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Update, March 29, 2021: This article has been updated to clarify Connecticut’s current restrictions on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) and how SB 1024 would affect production of them in the state. It has also been updated to include clarifications from Desegregate CT’s founder, Sara Bronin, about her plans for the group following the legislative session.

World Politics

Netanyahu’s postwar “plan” for Gaza is no plan at all

Joe Biden

Biden is weak — and unstoppable


Mascuzynity: How a nicotine pouch explains the new ethos of young conservative men

View all stories in Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.