After the police killing of George Floyd, a Connecticut law professor invited architects, planners and land use attorneys to a discussion of how local zoning worsens the state's racial inequities. Over 200 people logged onto her impromptu Zoom meeting.
Months later, that group has grown into a coalition of more than 60 organizations called Desegregate Connecticut. It has compiled a package of zoning changes for lawmakers to consider in a legislative session marked by debate over how to bring more equity to a state with some of the highest levels of income inequality.
“People can see with their own eyes that segregation exists in Connecticut and oftentimes they don’t know why. And zoning is one of the reasons why," said Sara Bronin, the law professor at the University of Connecticut and Yale University. “It goes to the very core of the opportunities that families have to live in integrated communities and to have the opportunities that they need to thrive.”
The nation’s racial reckoning has generated momentum to make it easier for people to live wherever they want in the state, where Democrats control the state legislature, but there’s been some resistance, especially from residents and leaders of smaller and often wealthy communities.
At recent hearings on housing-related legislation, opponents have argued that proposed zoning changes from the state could end local decision-making of zoning matters and that a one-size-fits all approach won't work in a state with 169 unique cities and towns, many of which have plans to increase affordable housing opportunities.
“When we moved here over 25 years ago, one of the things that brought us here was the character of the community, the small town feel that we have here,” said Erin Hedley, a resident of New Canaan, during an online public hearing where she testified against a bill that would eliminate some public hearing requirements for accessory dwelling units, such as in-law apartments.
“I don’t feel like we need to ‘city-fy’ all of our suburbs at the expense of what makes our rural towns so desirable to begin with,” she told state lawmakers.
Bronin contends that many of the concerns about her group's efforts have been unfounded.
“Studies nationally have not shown that the people who they have most targeted in their rhetoric, single family homeowners ... have lost anything with zoning reform and in fact, they have a lot to gain,” Bronin said. “Not just from rising property values, but also from the benefits that come with living in a more integrated society.”
Besides making it easier to allow accessory dwelling units, Desegregate Connecticut has proposed capping parking mandates, encouraging transit-oriented development, training local zoning board members and creating model zoning codes that cities and towns can choose from, including defining “character” with physical attributes.
Freshman state Rep. Kimberly Fiorello, a Republican from Greenwich, said at the same hearing that she's heard from both Democratic and Republican constituents who are anxious about the state dictating local zoning rules. During her election campaign in 2020, Fiorello warned “zoning and cancel culture are on the ballot this November” and that “activists and legislators have plans to change how we live in our towns."
She told fellow lawmakers: “Yes, we want more diverse housing and more efficient government, but not at the cost of giving up our local voices, local transparency and local accountability."
Critics of the status quo have historically argued that some zoning policies negatively impact minority and low-income communities, and are the cause of the communities being locked out of affluent areas.
Nationwide, some planners have worked to help make housing more affordable and promote equity. Sacramento, California; Portland, Oregon; and Minneapolis are a few of the places in recent years to address an end to single-family zoning, which is a policy that receives criticism because minority communities are statistically more likely to be living in a multi-family setting.
The killing of Floyd, coupled with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on minority communities, has made many planners more aware of the social impacts of zoning laws, deed restrictions and redlining, said Desiree Powell, an urban planner in the Dallas-Fort Worth area who founded the planning firm blckspces.
“They know the history now. They know the ugly side of the history, not just the good stuff anymore,” Powell said. “And I think for some of your more seasoned planners or older planners, some white and Black, that’s terrifying. It’s like the secret’s out. People know and people are doing their own homework and people are actually finding ways to rectify it, even if it’s on a small scale.”
Zoning laws have been under scrutiny for years in Connecticut towns. But the issue has intensified recently, especially in Woodbridge, a New Haven County community of nearly 9,000 with a town center on the National Register of Historic Places. Tim Herbst, a former Republican candidate for governor, is representing a dozen residents opposed to changes proposed by the Open Communities Alliance, an organization founded in 2013 to improve access to affordable housing. Among other things, the group wants the town to allow applicable single family homes on 1.5-acre tracts to have up to four units.
Herbst said he doesn’t oppose an expansion of affordable housing but a top-down approach imposed by the state isn't the answer.
“What they're saying is the Planning and Zoning Commission doesn't matter,” Herbst said. “And 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.”
Woodbridge was targeted by the Open Communities Alliance because its “exclusive zoning policies” has limited anything bigger than a single-family home to just 0.2% of the town’s land area, said Erin Boggs, the group's executive director.
The alliance is also working in Glastonbury and Fairfield and has conducted outreach in several other communities throughout Connecticut, a state that joined the District of Columbia and New York in 2018 as having the greatest income inequality in the U.S., according to U.S. Census data.
“We are working in many towns across the state and actually have had a real surge of interest from white suburban towns since the summer and the protests,” Boggs said.
Desegregate Connecticut has held workshops and meetings with thousands of people across the state ever since that first Zoom call.
“That kind of coalition has not been built in support of land use in the past," Bronin said. "And so I really hope that the legislature takes these ideas seriously ... and ... we can adopt these incremental changes to start the process of making Connecticut more integrated.”