On a recent Sunday, protesters marched through the center of Weston, a small, wealthy town in southwest Connecticut. They chanted “no justice, no peace” and raised handwritten signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Silence is Violence.”
Somewhere in the crowd, Brian Murray hoisted his own message.
“Fact check: Weston, CT. No Black teachers. No Black police officers. No Black board members. No Black town of Weston government office members.”
Murray, one of the town’s few Black residents, viewed the June 7 protest through a different lens than his white neighbors.
“It was a photo opportunity. That’s all,” said Murray, a limo driver and father of five who moved his family to the town eight years ago.
Eight days after that protest, at which elected officials urged the overwhelmingly white crowd to fight racism, Weston officials turned their attention to housing. With a unanimous vote, they adopted the town’s strategic plan, which recommends keeping most development to single-family homes on lots of at least two acres, a requirement that has resulted in a typical sale price of $660,000 — and a lack of diversity. Just 1.4% of residents are Black. Local officials rejected a suggestion to convert a vacant property into affordable housing for seniors. Instead, they carved out a small area of land surrounding the town green for potential development.
“Fundamentally, this is who we have been for a long time,” said Ken Edgar, the chairman of Weston’s Planning and Zoning Commission, referring to the town’s large homes. “We are trying to move the ball, but there would have to be demonstrated interest before I think we move the ball further and build diverse housing on small lots.”
Despite its liberal reputation — and Democrats controlling the legislature for the last 23 years and the governor’s mansion for nine — Connecticut is one of the most segregated places in the country. And with thousands of residents pouring into the streets this month to protest racism, housing advocates and progressive Democrats saw an opportunity to change that, calling for an overhaul of the state’s exclusionary housing laws.
That opportunity, however, appears to be fading.
At the state Capitol, Gov. Ned Lamont and legislative leaders have shelved a raft of proposals that could spur more affordable housing, after ending the legislative session early this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, they are expected to return to Hartford next month for a special session to address a single reform in response to the protests: police accountability.
The limited agenda represents a stark retreat for leaders who began the year with bold pledges to tackle Connecticut’s affordable housing crisis.
Lamont in particular seemed poised to shift the debate, publicly criticizing wealthy towns, after a series of articles published by the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica showed the lengths to which local jurisdictions have gone to block affordable housing, and by extension the people who need it.
“You know, I think they are nuts not to allow their downtowns to develop a little bit, not to have more multifamily housing, not to have more affordable housing, not to allow more of their community to live where they work,” he told the Connecticut Mirror’s “Steady Habits” podcast in January.
But this month, after a Juneteenth event billed as “A roundtable on Racial Equality and Social Justice,” Lamont struck a more passive tone, telling reporters he supports leaving zoning decisions up to local officials. Asked whether some towns’ zoning regulations are shutting out minorities, Lamont said, “I’m not as interested as much in changing the laws within these” towns.
Max Reiss, a spokesman for the governor, said in a statement that the administration prefers to work collaboratively over forcing towns to allow projects that they don’t support. The state Department of Housing, he said, is currently building an affordable housing “toolkit” for local officials “to make it easier to communicate the issue to their local communities.”
“By working together toward a common goal, we can be much more successful, and effective,” Reiss said. “Divisive policies which promote conflict and inhibit growth are at the heart of the problems in this country. We do not believe in these kinds of policies in Connecticut, and are actively working against them.”
Any challenge to local control also faces an uphill battle in a legislature dominated by suburban lawmakers who represent communities that have fought changes for years. House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he doesn’t believe tackling zoning reforms is possible during a special session but is open to considering it.
“To have protracted debate and public input, I don’t believe the time frame will allow it,” he said. “The General Assembly as a whole has been struggling with this issue for years. Having a vote by early July is sort of hopeful and wishful to be honest.”
Other Democrats disagree. On Wednesday, the state House of Representatives’ progressive caucus — representing nearly half of the party’s members in the lower chamber — announced it supports taking aim at exclusionary zoning during the special session.
“We need to take advantage of the moment that we have,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
Urban legislators, many of them Black, say the police killing of George Floyd and the demonstrations that swept the nation exposed the need for systemic reforms in several areas of American life, including housing.
“If we don’t do it now, we will never get it done,” said state Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, the vice chairman of the Housing Committee who has served in the legislature for 25 years.
“No longer do we chip around the outside and do what I call Novocain legislation,” he added. “That’s what we’ve been doing ever since I’ve been here. Just a little here. Just a little there because we don’t want to offend anybody. We don’t want anybody to be upset. No more. This is the time for the state of Connecticut to step up to the plate and be bold.”
A coalition of land use attorneys, planning and zoning commissioners and architects — named Desegregate CT — is pressing the legislature and governor to change the laws that allow local officials to block affordable housing in small towns. The result of so-called home rule has been a concentration of low-income units in urban areas.
In Hartford, some neighborhoods have as much as 70% of the housing units reserved for low-income residents — which, in turn, puts a strain on the town’s ability to raise enough revenue to pay for things like schools and street repairs. “I think it’s time for Connecticut to ask itself, what will these pandemics mean for our land use regime,” said Sara Bronin, the leader of Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission and an expert on land use at UConn Law School. “Segregation is an urgent crisis.”
Town officials say they’re not opposed to affordable housing in principle — but it has to fit in with what’s referred to as the “character” of their small communities. That typically means low-density projects, not multistory apartment buildings.
But civil rights leaders and developers have a name for this type of zoning — “Jim Crow Zoning” — because it allows Connecticut’s wealthier towns to shut out more affordable housing from being built, and the minorities who would live there. Developers argue that smaller projects don’t make financial sense because of the cost of the land and the construction. The rent they could charge would not justify the outlay, they say.
“The irony of BLM protests in white communities is it is these same towns that repeatedly block the development of affordable housing, which we know is an efficient way to promote integration,” said Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, a nonprofit that advocates for more desegregation.
As the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica reported last year, 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. That often locks low-income people out of educational and employment opportunities. In southwest Connecticut, for example, it costs 3.5 times more to live near the high-scoring elementary schools in Westport, Weston or Wilton than in Bridgeport, one of the most impoverished cities in the state. It is the largest gap in the country, the Brookings Institution reported.
“Segregation is one of the roots of the evil in our society, and it’s perpetuated by exclusionary zoning. Let’s just call it what it is, it’s Jim Crow Zoning,” said Richard Freedman, a developer with a history of fighting local officials to build affordable housing in high-end communities. “It’s a system of social control, an insidious, complicated system of social control, just like the old Jim Crow laws.”
Local officials in towns that have rejected affordable housing have disputed claims of discrimination. They point to frail public infrastructure, clogged streets, a lack of sidewalks and concerns about overcrowding as reasons for denying projects.
“The challenge to our community is not just to the character of neighborhoods, but also to firefighting and police response, potentially to educational capacity, to human services support and to our tradition as a single-family home community,” Jim Marpe, Westport’s Republican first selectman, told residents in his State of the Town Address last year.
Connecticut stands out on the national stage. The suburbs surrounding New Haven are more exclusive than Silicon Valley, which is notorious for its high housing costs, according to research from Professor Robert C. Ellickson at Yale Law School. The towns of Bethany, Madison, Orange and Woodbridge designate more than 98% of their residentially zoned land solely for single-family dwellings, built on lots of at least 1 acre. In each place, less than 3% of the population is Black. In Guilford, 93% is reserved for single-family homes and requires a 2-acre minimum. Just 1% of the population there is Black.
For people of color, the experience can be isolating — and alienating.
In Weston, where only eight affordable housing units are reserved for low-income residents, Murray said that he and his family have experienced several instances of unequal treatment, such as when school officials expelled his eighth-grade son last year after a disciplinary incident. Murray filed a complaint with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, alleging his son was treated harshly because he is Black. The commission did not return a call seeking comment. William S. McKersie, superintendent of Weston Public Schools, and Anthony Pesco, the chairman of the Weston board of education, declined to comment on the case, saying they could not discuss individual students. But Pesco said, “The board takes allegations of racial bias and racial injustice very seriously.”
The only way conditions will improve, Murray said, is if the town makes it possible for more people from diverse backgrounds to be able to afford to move there and serve in public office. He pays $3,300 to rent a three-bedroom home in town.
Edgar, the chairman of the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, attended Weston’s Black Lives Matter protest and said town officials recognize the need for affordable housing. “We’re looking affirmatively towards having more diversification in our housing,” he said, citing the town’s strategic plan, which designates the town center as a potential area for affordable housing. “You’ve got to start some place.”
He said residents generally oppose allowing homes to be built on smaller lots because it’s never been done. They’re also concerned that more children would move into the community, inflate school rolls and, in turn, lead to higher taxes. “Can we build a new school to accommodate the hypothetical one-quarter acre homes? It hasn’t been on the table in Weston,” Edgar said.
Enrollment in Weston schools has declined by 9% over the last 10 years and is projected to drop by an additional 4% over the next five. The district is now looking at consolidating to three schools from four.
Across Connecticut, the opposition to affordable housing in these wealthy enclaves remains stiff. Karen DuBois-Walton, president of the housing authority in New Haven and a member of the State Board of Education, said critics have hardened in recent years, evolving from being labeled NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) to BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone).
“If we continue to subscribe to zoning policy that reinforces what we have at this point at the long end of a long history of inequity, then we will be agreeing that we are going to continue to reinforce racist policy,” she said.
Instead of challenging those zoning practices, though, state officials have steered taxpayer money to build more subsidized developments in struggling communities with high crime, few jobs and struggling schools.
The Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica reported last year that 80% of the state’s 27,000 subsidized housing units were located in struggling communities, literally erecting pockets of poverty. Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, designed to help low-income people find decent housing outside poor areas, have also failed; the bulk are being used in high-poverty neighborhoods because those are the only places with available rentals for voucher recipients.
Over the past month, Rodney Williams has protested at several Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New Haven in the wake of Floyd’s death. He grew up in housing projects in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived in Newhallville, a poor section of New Haven, for years.
“When the man was saying, ‘I can’t breathe,’ the truth is America has had they foot on our neck ever since we was young,” he said. “If we had access to opportunities, we could afford to live where we want to live. We should be able to live where we want to live.”
Desegregate CT, the coalition of attorneys and local land use officials, is developing proposals to rein in local control and clear the path for more affordable housing.
Some Democrats also want to revive legislation that died during the regular session this year. Among the proposals: expanding the jurisdiction of housing authorities so they could build in surrounding communities and starting a pilot program that would allow children to continue attending their school if they win a housing voucher and decide to move.
Much depends on Lamont, who has tread lightly; in fact, he has deferred to legislative leaders entirely on the agenda for a special session. In January, he floated tying state spending on transportation upgrades in affluent communities — such as new or renovated train stops — to local approval of more affordable housing projects. But the money was set to come from installing toll roads throughout the state, a proposal that died. Now, amid the economic downturn, the state coffers for transportation projects are nearly empty.
Aside from legislation, the governor can still influence the housing debate through the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, where his appointees decide where to direct public funding to construct affordable housing. But even there, officials say they plan to continue using a selection process that hinges on local approval — a system that critics argue results in the warehousing of poor people in poor communities.
Under the existing system, few developers of affordable housing even propose building in wealthy towns, fearing organized opposition.
That was the case in Waterford, where Harold Foley, owner of Georgia-based HF3 Group LLC, proposed a 40-unit apartment complex on the property where Cohanzie Elementary School closed in 2008. Located in an area of single-family homes, across the street from a baseball field and playground, the proposal drew immediate protests from neighbors. Some said they feared affordable housing would not fit in with the neighborhood. Others worried about crime. Still others cited traffic and the impact on property values. The developer ultimately walked away from the project.
Several local elected officials attended the town’s recent Black Lives Matter protest.
Beth Sabilia, a Democrat and selectwoman, said she opposed the project because of the neighbor concerns but she did not weigh in publicly at the time. “I’ve always been schooled to give the zoning board their lane, let them stay in their lane.”
“People want to stay in their lanes,” she added, “but I’m not necessarily sure that staying in your lane is the way to move ahead.”