The Power and Pain of Zoning Regulations in Connecticut | Connecticut Public Radio
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The Power and Pain of Zoning Regulations in Connecticut

Dec 14, 2015

Zoning can codify racism and promote classism – and in Connecticut, that’s long been its role.

When eleven people – eight adults and three children – moved into a mansion in Hartford’s West End, neighbors cried foul.

The Scarborough Street neighbors cited a 1960s-era zoning regulation that limits the number of unrelated people that can share any one address. The case of what was quickly dubbed the "Scarborough 11" quickly erupted as national news with a predictable script of characters: stodgy, long-time New Englanders versus a new-New England where the definition of “family” is fungible.

While the tiny house movement is beginning to answer affordable housing needs in Washington, D.C. and the challenge of homelessness in Nashville, Connecticut remains wedded to big houses with large yards.

The common theme? Zoning.

By regulating multi-family homes, land use, lot size, and density, towns can separate business from residential districts, and create neighborhoods of like-minded -- and similarly-resourced -- folks. Zoning can also serve as a legal means of excluding certain people.

In other words, zoning can codify racism and promote classism – and in Connecticut, that’s long been its role.

“I used to think that local zoning ordinances were boring,” said Jack. A. Dougherty, Trinity College associate professor of educational studies. “But Connecticut has taught me that exclusionary zoning lines are some of the most powerful dividers among the people of this state.”

Members of the "Scarborough 11" sit down for dinner.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
Neighbors who oppose the "Scarborough 11" say current zoning laws are meant to preserve the neighborhood’s character. That’s an argument heard in the suburbs, too.

In 2013, Lisa Prevost, a reporter who specializes in real estate and housing, and author of the Mortgages column in The New York Times, wrote Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate. The book examines exclusionary zoning that disrupts the creation of affordable housing. Zoning that dictates lot or living space size can serve as a moat around a castle. If you don’t have the money to buy a particular-sized house with a yard, you must look somewhere else.

Connecticut pays a dominant role in Prevost’s book.

“I think that in New England, there’s a different mind set,” said Prevost, a New Hampshire native. “We don’t move very quickly here. I have heard developers say this. Connecticut is supposed to be the land of steady habits, but I’ve heard it called the land of bad habits.”

Some of those bad habits are rooted in bad ideas, said Dougherty, who is researching a book about the history of zoning in the state. In 1920s West Hartford, zoning laws placed restrictions on minimum house and lot size. He found a West Hartford zoning commission report from 1924 that said that with such rules “the development of crowded tenement house conditions such as exist in many larger communities will be effectively prevented in West Hartford.”

No one wants a crowded tenement, but multi-family housing tends to be more affordable, and serves a gateway for families who want to enter a particular town – perhaps one like West Hartford, with resources that include high-performing schools.

A 2012 Brookings Institution study showed that inclusionary zoning can have far-reaching effects, such as helping to close the achievement gap in schools. 

Anti-density laws in the state, the study said, lead to the creation of more expensive housing near higher-performing schools. An interactive map that accompanies the study shows Connecticut cities have some of the nation’s highest test score gaps.

Zoning’s original intent was to separate business districts from residential ones, said Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Early rules in the late 1880s regulated building height in New York City, with the quaint concern that tall buildings would block the sun.

Erin Kemple, executive director of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center.
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR
"Housing and real estate is nothing but change."
Erin Kemple

But zoning laws also allowed some towns to raised their NIMBY flags, including out in San Francisco, where a blatantly-racist rule limited Chinese-owned laundries. That regulation was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1886.

Kemple said that pattern was repeated in Connecticut.

“In the early part of the 20th century, zoning laws started to be used to keep ‘us’ in and ‘them’ out,” said Kemple.

Zoning that creates boundaries between property created for different uses – also known as single-use or Euclidean zoning –is “based upon this idea that certain groups of people cause certain problems and that zoning can be used to address those problems,” said Kemple.

And although it’s impossible to separate race and class in the equation, zoning separates single-family homes from multi-family ones, and “a lot of zoning results in class-based segregation,” said Kemple.  

Trinity College and Connecticut Fair Housing Center have compiled a series of interactive maps and charts that show the state’s zoning laws, along with the amount of affordable housing in each town. According to a 2015 report from Kemple’s organization and the state Department of Housing, 57.4 percent of the state’s towns don’t have provisions for affordable housing in their zoning regulations. And it gets worse: According to the report, of the town zoning regulations that “mention affordable housing, 95 percent require a special permit for such development, and 68 percent limit affordable housing to certain zones.”

Meanwhile, the "Scarborough 11" case winds its way through the courtsHartford’s exclusive, low-density R-8 zone restricts dwellings to single-family residences with lots of 12,000 square feet, and at least 1,500 square feet of living space. (The regulations allow for any number of domestic servants.)

Neighbors who oppose the "Scarborough 11" say current zoning laws are meant to preserve the neighborhood’s character. That’s an argument heard in the suburbs, too.

“If you talk to people in towns, they want to preserve the rural or suburban character, whatever name they want to put on it,” said Kemple. “So if you were to put 100 units on a ten-acre parcel, obviously it’s going to be more densely populated, and look very different. Preserving the suburban rural character assumes that the town has always looked like that. Of course, one of the things we know is that housing and real estate is nothing but change. Saying we want to preserve the rural character doesn’t reflect the current needs of all of Connecticut's citizens.”

Zoning’s original intent was to separate business districts from residential ones.
David Fink, policy director of Partnership for Strong Communities
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

David Fink, policy director of Partnership for Strong Communities, said the state’s housing stock is heavily skewed to single-family residences, and it’s up to zoning boards to become proactive, rather than reactive, to create space for multi-family and affordable units.

This is a departure from a decades-long trend of building single-family homes. In two-thirds of Connecticut’s 169 towns, single-family homes make up 70 percent or more of the housing stock, Fink said, but demand is shifting, and Fink said there is ample reason to make Connecticut’s towns more open affordable.

“Fiscally, it just makes sense,” said Fink. While single-family homes proliferate, between 2008 and 2013, the grand list – the value of all taxable property in town – has dropped in 151 towns, he said.

Dave Rozza, one of the "Scarborough 11."
Credit Ryan Caron King / WNPR

As an illustration of the shrinking demand for sprawling mansions, one of the "Scarborough 11," Dave Rozza, points to the recent real estate ads.

In Hartford’s exclusive R-8 zoning district, Rozza said, 26 houses are on the market, and some of them have been for months.

Revisiting restrictive zoning is serious, said Fink.

“Now Baby Boomers are downsizing, and their kids want the same kind of dense housing with walkable neighborhoods,” Fink said.

Towns haven’t had to pay attention. They ignore the trend at their peril.