New Haven protesters marching to the New Haven Police Department on June 3, 2020. [Photo from Gage Frank]

On Juneteenth, 200 residents of Darien joined in a Black Lives Matter vigil to honor the lives lost to police brutality, protest systemic racism in our country, and demonstrate their commitment to ending racial injustice. The protests in Darien and across our nation are a profound statement about the urgent need for change, and it is critical to this moment that we recognize the implications of racist policies that persist in Connecticut.

Mayor Justin Elicker

Connecticut is one of the most racially segregated states in the country, both geographically and economically. Unlike most states, property taxes fund almost all our local costs – particularly our schools. That means that towns with greater poverty must raise their taxes to extraordinary rates to cover basic services, and that vast educational inequities, even in neighboring towns, go unaddressed.

A town like Darien, one of the wealthiest places in the country with one of the best school systems, is next door to two Alliance districts – schools determined by the state to be the most in need. While thousands of residents from every corner of our state have rightly spent weeks protesting racial injustice and inequity, we continue to be one of the worst perpetrators of the very cycle we hope to dismantle.

Black residents are overwhelmingly concentrated in our cities, where they pay the highest tax rates and send their children to the lowest-performing school districts. For our entire history, Black Americans have been deprived of resources at the hands of racist systems that have solidified deep, intergenerational poverty: from slavery to Jim Crow laws, then to redlining, disparate access to jobs, and the ability to vote.

In Connecticut, we have to reckon with the fact that there are still policies in place that perpetuate this racism.

We know that safe, quality, multifamily, and affordable housing can help undo this system of segregation and are central to providing Black Americans access to economic and social mobility. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of Connecticut towns use their zoning codes (a practice known as “exclusionary zoning”) to actively prevent construction of this housing and, in turn, block Black families from moving in.

It is time we recognize these zoning codes for what they are – segregation.

In 1989, the legislature set out a goal of 10% affordable housing (section 8-30g) for every town in the state. It also tried to put rules in place to prevent towns from continuing to practice exclusionary zoning. If every town met this decades-old goal, we would create tens of thousands of new housing units and dramatically unseat the racial housing imbalance of our state. Over time, however, this legislation has been weakened, and municipalities desperate to maintain the status quo — which is rooted in well-documented historical and structural racism — have found loopholes in the form of housing moratoriums. As such, the state’s powerful 10% affordable housing goal has proven entirely impotent.

While hundreds of people marched in Darien, they were doing so in a town with less than 3% of its entire housing stock qualifying as affordable and in year ten of a state-sanctioned affordable housing moratorium. Darien is not alone – more than 80% of Connecticut towns have failed to reach the state’s 10% affordable housing target. As a result, the burden to build affordable housing has fallen to our cities, many of which have more than doubled or tripled that threshold. This doesn’t just force Black residents into cities, the lack of housing stock outside of cities drives up the demand within them, increasing prices dramatically. Every year that we allow this housing crisis to endure is another year that urban Black families will be kept from equal opportunity and that the systemic racism we have been marching against will continue.

None of this is new information. For years, mayors, community members, and legislators from our cities have been publishing articles, begging for action to end racial segregation, and asking for the resources we need to properly serve impoverished residents. And yet the most recent action taken by the state legislature did the opposite. Legislation passed in 2017, driven by suburban legislators who overrode the governor’s veto, made it even easier for towns to block affordable housing within their borders.

We have the power to change this. I believe sincerely that those residents marching in Darien, and Weston, and Fairfield, and Farmington, and Trumbull, and so many more want to be part of a solution. It is time we recognize these zoning codes for what they are – segregation. If wealthy communities are going to continue to enjoy the lowest property tax rates, use exclusionary zoning to prevent Black families from moving in, drive up housing prices in the process, and keep our poorest residents paying the highest taxes to send their children to underfunded schools – let’s at least charge them for it.

Let’s tax segregation.

We can and should levy an additional property tax on every community that has a housing stock where less than 10% of the units are considered affordable. The less affordable housing and the wealthier the town, the higher the segregation tax. The funds would then be distributed to the towns with the greatest need, which have also already done their part to create affordable housing. The vast majority of Alliance Districts, where our students are most in need, meet this threshold. That’s where the money can do the most good because housing is inextricably linked to educational outcomes. Here in New Haven, we could put those dollars towards finally ensuring that every child is supported, both in and out of the classroom, and finally make this a city where everyone can thrive.

Imagine the vibrant state we would build if every child could go to a quality school in a well-funded district. Imagine all the families who would feel secure in a home where they didn’t have to pay more than a third of their income in order to stay; how all our towns would be made better by realizing the diversity that has fueled our country from its inception, without constructed boundaries of race or creed.

Imagine a state where we declared not just with words but with legislative action, with dollars, and with resources that in Connecticut Black lives do matter.

Justin Elicker is the Mayor of New Haven.

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