Zoning – or, more to the point, what type of housing can be built in suburban neighborhoods – is on the ballot next week in Connecticut.
At least that’s what the newly-formed Hands Off Our Zoning coalition and some Republican candidates for the General Assembly are telling voters.
“Be very careful how you vote,” state Rep. Gail Lavielle, a Wilton resident who is leaving the legislature after 10 years, told the more than 3,000 people logged into the coalition’s online forum Tuesday evening.
The group is casting its message wide in Fairfield county. Sprinkled throughout New Canaan are lawn signs asking residents to vote Republican: “Keep Planning and Zoning Local Vote Row B.” On Facebook, maps are being shared widely with the warning that urban cities would take over housing development in tony towns like Ridgefield or Westport if Democrats are elected.
“Think Danbury and Norwalk Housing Authorities having oversight over Ridgefield,” longtime GOP Rep. John Frey, who is not seeking reelection, wrote on Facebook this month, referring to the possibility that these two racially and economically diverse cities would assume zoning control in Ridgefield, which is largely white and wealthy. “Zoning, or rather the removal of local control, is on the ballot.”
Republican Kim Healy, who is running against state Sen. Will Haskell, D-Wesport, has shared the same map on Facebook. She has also shared on her website more detailed maps outlining where she believes single-family zoning will be thrown out if Democrats are elected.
“Connecticut is trying to take over our schools, control of our planning and zoning…” Healy tells viewers in a post on her Facebook page.
Neither Frey nor Healy responded to calls for comment this week.
The focus on zoning in local races is not unique to Connecticut. Zoning and land use policies have received an unusual amount of attention this election – in part because of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which called attention to the separate and unequal lives of Black people and other minorities, and in part because President Donald Trump has campaigned on the issue, stoking fears about crime and low income housing infiltrating suburban neighborhoods.
“If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects,” Trump tweeted in September.
“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” Trump Tweeted in July. “Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down.”
While Trump plays on racist fears of terrorized suburbs as he attempts to secure the suburban vote, some Democrats say the tactics being used by Connecticut Republicans are just a more politically correct version of Trump’s message.
“I think the president’s position represents the positions of the Connecticut Republican Party, except he’s blatant and they try to sugarcoat it. But if you really see where they stand, they stand united and hand in hand with where Trump is,” said state Sen. Saud Anwar, co-chairman of the legislature’s Housing Committee.
A Democrat from suburban South Windsor, Anwar has is not facing an opponent in the election, but he proposed the legislation aimed at tackling the state’s prevalent segregation that has served as the uniting force for Republicans this campaign. The maps being distributed by the GOP are based on his legislation, but they mischaracterize what the legislation would actually do.
“Across the state, scare tactics are being used and misinformation around this is being used, unfortunately,” Anwar said during an interview, adding that communicating what the bill actually would do has been difficult.
Bureaucratic red tape in Connecticut is a major barrier to giving those with Section 8 housing vouchers a real choice about where to live. State law gives local housing authorities in each of the 169 municipalities control over the overwhelming majority of the 33,000 federal vouchers used each month in Connecticut.
As a result, four out of every five families who get help paying their rent from a Section 8 voucher live in racially isolated communities, while more than half live in poor neighborhoods. As a result, the program has failed to achieve one of its key goals – giving families a chance to live in safer communities with better schools.
Anwar’s legislation, and similar legislation proposed over the last three years, would have expanded the jurisdiction of local housing authorities so Section 8 recipients could use their vouchers and move without having to navigate the red tape of getting the voucher transferred to another authority. Those proposals also would allow housing authorities to build affordable housing in neighboring towns, but only if they win local zoning approval.
Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country, as well as most expensive places to live. With thousands of residents pouring into the streets to protest racism and police brutality, a coalition called Desegregate Connecticut was formed and some progressive Democrats over the summer saw an opportunity to reduce segregation by overhauling the state’s exclusionary housing laws.
Senate Democrats in June also promised to put exclusionary zoning on their agenda.
Republicans say these efforts are proof that their towns are under threat of losing local control over what type of housing and people are allowed in their communities when the legislature convenes for its regular session in January.
“Be very careful how you vote, and know who really opposes these legislative proposals, and who has jumped on the opposition bandwagon in order to win reelection. The distinction should be quite obvious,” wrote Rep. Gail Lavielle in a Facebook post sharing a video of the event. Lavielle did not return a call for comment Thursday.
But the leader of Desegregate Connecticut, Sara Bronin, said the best place to debate statewide land use reforms is at the state Capitol, after the election.
“Zoning isn’t on the ballot. At this point, the best place to spend everyone’s energy in debating the issues on the merits is when new legislators come in in January,” said Bronin, former chairwoman of Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission and an expert in zoning regulations at UConn Law. “I’m more along the lines of, you know, let’s convene the conversation when the new legislators come in.”
- Local officials would have to set aside land near train stations and their town centers for developers interested in building town homes, duplexes or other more reasonably priced homes (not single family residences).
- When a developer proposes building multi-family housing, local officials will be required to hold those applications to the same standards for public hearings and special permits as those seeking to build a single-family home.
- The fees towns charge for hiring expert consultants and meeting other requirements to build multi-family homes would be capped.
Leaders of Hands off Our Zoning took aim at these proposals during their Zoom discussion Tuesday.
“You know, I think on the ground here we know what our communities need, and we’re well ahead of this stuff. So that’s another example of that top down approach,” said Rick Tomasetti, an architect and chairman of Wilton’s Planning and Zoning Commission. “Gentle density sounds so romantic … Gentle density sounds fantastic. It’s going to be gentle, it’s not going to hurt anybody. We’re all going to get along. But you start to look at 50% of the area within a half a mile of a transit hub, you look at a quarter mile from a commercial corridor, and I look at my community … I fear that legislation like this or policy objectives like this will now force the density into our single family zones.”
Wilton’s typical housing cost is 2.5 times the state average, a result of officials there designating nearly all of its residentially zoned land solely for single-family dwellings, built on lots of at least 1 acre. Just 1% of the population in Wilton is Black, 3.5% is Hispanic, and 2% live in poverty.
Instead of clearing a path for more affordable housing in suburban towns like his own, Tomasetti said such development is a better choice for the cities.
“I would think that it would be more appropriate to tell Norwalk, and I don’t mean to pick on Norwalk – my family, plenty of family members live there. I think it’s a great community, but maybe those communities should have an even greater density, maybe they should have six stories or eight story,” he said.
The CT Mirror and ProPublica reported last year 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. As far back as this data has been kept, Connecticut’s low-income housing has been concentrated in poor cities and towns, an imbalance that has not budged over the last three decades. In Hartford, some neighborhoods have as much as 70% of the housing units reserved for low-income residents.
Despite its liberal reputation — and with Democrats controlling the legislature for the last 23 years and the governor’s mansion for a decade — Connecticut has failed to change the laws that inhibit more affordable housing from being developed in the suburbs.
Democrats were reminded last year of the huge backlash lawmakers face at any attempt to regionalize after Gov. Ned Lamont and Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney proposed rethinking how schools are run.
Leading that opposition was the group Hands Off Our Schools, which raised $25,000 to fight those efforts and successfully got the governor to back down. Many of the same people are now leading the Hands Off Our Zoning movement.
“I’m not surprised it’s being used as a campaign tactic,” said state Rep. Jason Rojas, the chairman of the legislature’s powerful Finance, Revenue, and Bonding Committee, and one of the lead proponents of land use reforms. “It is obviously being framed in a way that exaggerates exactly what was attempting to be done. It’s using scare tactics.”