When it came time sell this particular 5-bedroom home in Woodbridge, located on a 1.5 acre lot studded with trees, the realtor pitched the house to prospective buyers with these inducements: “Location, location, location,” the ad proclaimed, adding that the “expansive home” has a floor plan capable of “accommodating anyone and everyone.”
The property – located just off the route taken by local politicians and residents as they marched over the summer chanting “Black Lives Matter” and toting signs that read “End White Silence” – is now at the center of a controversial proposal that challenges the town’s so-called “snob zoning,” which civil rights attorneys argue keeps Woodbridge segregated.
These same attorneys, who teamed up with a developer to purchase the property last spring, are calling on town officials to throw out the town’s prohibition on multi-family housing and to approve their application to tear down the 5-bedroom home and allow them to build a 4-unit dwelling.
While opposition to the application has been fierce – a dozen homeowners hired the conservative former gubernatorial candidate and land use attorney Tim Herbst to fight the zoning changes – other residents have stepped up to support the effort to dismantle the town’s zoning laws, which they say are restrictive.
Continued disparities in housing opportunity due to race and wealth are unacceptable. This is not and should not be a controversial statement. But despite this, over a long history, Woodbridge has constructed a wall between itself and the outside world. ”
What’s happening in this liberal suburb that borders segregated New Haven is a reflection of land-use decisions playing out in wealthy suburbs across the state. It’s also a result of the inertia at the state Capitol to resist any new housing laws.
Just last week, housing advocates and lawmakers who were hoping to build on the racial justice momentum spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement were dealt a blow when the leaders of the Senate Democratic Caucus dethroned the co-chair of the legislature’s Housing Committee – Saud Anwar, who is arguably the fiercest advocate in the General Assembly for overhauling state laws that some say allow exclusionary zoning to thrive.
“I think the removal of Saud Anwar as the chair is a blow to anybody who’s doing this work,” said Sen. Gary Winfield, a Democrat from New Haven and co-chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “We have the nickname the Land of Steady habits for a reason, because that’s what we do. Even when those habits are bad or yield for at least some portion of our population results that none of us would want for ourselves, we tend to remain doing the things that we’re doing – and so I do think that litigation is going to probably be the major way that this gets attacked.”
If Woodbridge officials decide to reject the zoning application, the team of lawyers from Open Communities Alliance and a fair housing development clinic at Yale Law School are poised to appeal the decision in court. The case has potential statewide implications for other Connecticut towns with similar zoning restrictions if the courts ultimately determine Woodbridge’s regulations have led to discriminatory housing practices.
In Woodbridge, however, politicians and the local Democratic party have largely been silent, watching from the sidelines as the case plays out.
“No, the Democratic Town Committee has not voted on any position or resolution. Many members of that [planning and zoning] commission are nominated by the committee and so generally as a matter of respect, we let these commissions do their work,” said Laurence Grotheer, chairman of the DTC who until January served as the director of communications for former New Haven Mayor Toni Harp.
First Selectman Beth Heller, a Democrat who spoke at the Black Lives Matter rally over the summer, refused last week to discuss whether she supports the request to throw out the nearly town-wide prohibition on multi-family units. In an emailed statement to the CT Mirror, Heller said “I am confident that the members of the Commission will conduct a thorough, thoughtful, and fair process before making a decision.”
Despite its liberal image – and with Democrats controlling the legislature for the last 23 years and the governor’s residence for nine – Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country.
Likewise, Democrats have controlled Woodbridge for years, and the 2020 election’s blue wave reached this small town and flipped the state House of Representatives seat held by Themis Klarides, the longtime Republican house leader who did not seek reelection. The state senate district that covers most of the town also flipped blue.
Meanwhile, the civil rights attorneys bringing this case are pulling no punches. During a public hearing last week, they bluntly told the commissioners and local residents that their housing policies discriminate against Black and Latino people, perpetuate segregation and violate several state and federal laws, as well as the state constitution. This is the exact opposite of the typical approach, which is to frame an application as non-controversially as possible and avoid talking about the racial implications.
“Continued disparities in housing opportunity due to race and wealth are unacceptable. This is not and should not be a controversial statement. But despite this, over a long history, Woodbridge has constructed a wall between itself and the outside world,” Erin Boggs, the leader of Open Communities Alliance, told the commission during its Nov. 30 hearing. “After decades of exclusion, there is still time to right the wrongs of the past.”
Karen Anderson, a Yale Law School student, reviewed the town’s zoning decisions dating back to the 1930s.
“Woodbridge’s zoning restrictions over the decades have driven up housing costs, and these high costs exclude many Black and Hispanic families and keep Woodbridge whiter and wealthier than the surrounding region. And so, when Woodbridge stays the same, Woodbridge stays segregated,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
Several members of the public took their remarks – and the framing of their 145-page application – as being called racist by a team of “elite” Ivy Leaguers.
“There’s a basic assumption that affordable – aka lower- and affordable multi-family – has some causality with race. I implore this commission not to concede this point nor to be bullied by these elitist individuals and to fall into this bigoted trap. It’s a basic strategy of people who themselves are having racist ideas in their nature and are attempting to make that assumption and perception of reality, projecting onto other people their own racial biases. This conversation has nothing to do with race. It is solely an issue of multifamily versus single family, and has nothing to do with race,” Daniel Cowan told the commissioners.
Louis Ruotolo, who lived in New Haven decades ago, said people looking to move into his town just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to be able to afford to live in Woodbridge.
“The path is mostly uphill. There are no buses to take you up that hill. You need to walk it. But it’s worth it,” he said.
In an email to The Connecticut Mirror, Democratic Town Council member Jeffrey Atwood said, “I disagree with the connotation [and] use of racism by the Housing Alliance. There is no racism is Woodbridge. … I would argue, the real motive: a small group making coin in the name of ‘social justice.’ There is no need to change Woodbridge zoning here.”
There’s a basic assumption that affordable – aka lower- and affordable multi-family – has some causality with race. I implore this commission not to concede this point nor to be bullied by these elitist individuals and to fall into this bigoted trap.”
While declining to weigh in on whether the town needs to end its prohibition on multi-family housing, Grotheer, the chairman of the DTC, said the town does have some troubling zoning regulations.
“Exclusionary zoning persists in many Connecticut towns and detracts from the diversity that these towns might otherwise enjoy. There are widespread zoning policies in Woodbridge that make it challenging for some state residents to move here,” he said.
Gearing up to fight the challenge to the town’s zoning laws is Herbst, the scrappy former first selectman of Trumbull who ran for governor in 2018.
During an interview last week about his representation of about a dozen Woodbridge residents whose homes neighbor the property that the civil rights attorneys want to transform, Herbst said he strongly believes zoning decisions should be left to local officials.
“These decisions should be town-driven and not developer driven,” he said, pointing out that he started his political career serving on a local zoning board.
He said the appropriate next step for overarching zoning changes would be for Woodbridge residents and officials to develop a new strategic plan, known as a Plan of Conservation and Development.
“Changes should be borne from a legislative process as prescribed by the General Statutes, allowing the planning and zoning commission and the board of selectmen to do and conduct their due diligence to come up with modifications that address some of these overarching concerns, but does so in a in a way that honors the function of local government,” he said.
But civil rights attorneys and several residents who spoke in support of the changes pointed out that, at nearly every turn, local officials have decided against allowing more housing options in town. In 2009, for example, town officials were so fearful that a 150-acre local country club on the brink of bankruptcy would be scooped up by a developer looking to build affordable or multi-family housing that they purchased the property for $7 million.
The result is that this leafy suburb still has virtually no affordable housing. Only 35 housing units in town are reserved for low-income residents, nearly all of which are solely for elderly residents.
In the last 30 years, just three duplexes and zero multi-family units with three or more dwellings have received a permit to be built, compared to 281 single-family homes. In Woodbridge, 99% of the residentially zoned land is reserved for single-family homes and requires a 1.5-acre minimum. Just 3% of the population is Black, compared to about 12% statewide.
Will Democrats in the General Assembly take on zoning reform?
On Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the end of slavery, Democratic state senators gathered outside the state Capitol to release their broad agenda for the looming special legislative session inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests that were happening almost daily across the state.
On their agenda: tackling segregation and the state laws that enable exclusionary zoning.
One month later, Democratic leaders and Gov. Ned Lamont announced what they negotiated behind closed doors. It didn’t include exclusionary zoning.
On the same day Democrats killed the issue, Sen. Anwar spoke at a press conference organized by Desegregate Connecticut and released the bill he drafted that he hoped his legislative colleagues would take up. Changes included requiring local officials 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.
While the bill may have stalled, Republican legislators campaigned against it and continue to rally in opposition, including during a town hall hosted last week by state Sen. Tony Hwang, the outgoing Senate minority leader of the Housing Committee who will become the ranking leader of the Planning and Development Committee.
“As the legislature considers implementing any development or zoning regulations on CT municipalities, there must be four thoughtful discussion points,” Hwang said, saying development needs to preserve the “character” of the town, protect waterways, balance safety with density, and that it should be the local government’s decision to approve or deny changes. “State mandated laws, while well-intended, can have unforeseen and varying impacts on CT’s cities and towns. This is especially true in matters concerning land use and zoning.”
During an interview this week, Anwar said he is disappointed he will no longer lead the Housing Committee, but his commitment to the issue remains strong.
“A large number of the problems facing the state go through the lack of solution for problems with housing. My commitment to fix the major challenges of Connecticut – and the single point of solution to housing – will not go away. I remain committed to addressing these challenges,” he said, adding that if Republicans continue to host forums to blast his proposal, the least they could do is extend him an invitation to participate.
Erin Kemple, the leader of the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, said she is sad Anwar will no longer lead the committee and believes zoning reform will be more difficult with Senator-elect Rick Lopes as the new chairman because his record as a state representative and professional experience as a property manager seems to be more focused on important issues surrounding rental housing and the affordability of existing housing.
“I do think it’s going to be more difficult,” she said of zoning reforms.
Decades of inertia at the state Capitol on this issue, though, has left many advocates to believe the courts are the only path to changes.
“It seems like litigation may be the only way to do it, because elected officials do not seem willing to do it on their own,” Kemple said.
State Sen. Pro Tem Martin Looney, a Democrat from New Haven and the longtime leader of the state Senate, said during an interview last week that the issues championed by Anwar would remain a top priority for his caucus. Looney said his agenda for the upcoming legislative session includes a bill that would penalize towns that aren’t allowing affordable housing to be built in their communities. Those penalties for uncooperative towns include the state collecting a surcharge on those residents’ property taxes and reducing the amount the state will pay to build or renovate schools.
“Affordable housing continues to be a challenge in Connecticut, and the practices of exclusionary zoning, which very often mask a racist intent, continue to plague us. That is going to be a point of focus this upcoming session,” Looney said. “One of the things that I think we need to do is to create some incentives and also some penalties for towns that are so recalcitrant and refuse to move toward a higher percentage of affordable housing in their communities.”
While Looney has been pushing for similar overhauls for years, he believes this might finally be the year that legislation passes, given the unrest over the summer following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. A lawyer himself, Looney said litigation that aims to tackle these issues could either spur action from a nervous legislature — or cause them to wait even longer.
“I think litigation does help to highlight an issue and help make the equity arguments that need to be made, and it may advance legislation. But on the other hand, pending litigation may make some people want to wait for the result of litigation and say, ‘Let’s wait till the case is decided because of the court’s order. We don’t have to be on the hook for voting for it.’”
Incoming House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the legislature doesn’t have the votes for big reforms on this issue.
“Look, at the end of the day, you’re not going to be able to just change every local zoning law in the state of Connecticut because you won’t have the votes to do it,” he said during the CT Mirror’s Steady Habits podcast. “We’ve tried incentivizing in the past… we need to do that again.”