Connecticut likes to think of itself as a progressive state that values equal opportunity for all. But the ugly reality is that Connecticut is one of the most unequal states in the country, with high levels of racial and socioeconomic segregation. While there are many causes behind this, a huge part of these inequities stems from exclusionary zoning laws: a hyperlocal land use regime designed to prevent new housing development, exclude newcomers, and create a scarcity of homes. These laws enrich incumbent property owners and preserve their exclusive access to schools and other amenities, at the expense of all other residents.
These zoning laws are said to “preserve neighborhood character” or prevent nuisances, but they have their roots in exclusion. The historical origins of zoning across the U.S. show that many original restrictions on residential development were driven by a desire by wealthy white property owners to prevent Black people or Chinese or Jewish immigrants from living near them, whether this came in the form of density limits, apartment bans, or limits on unrelated people living together.
Today in Connecticut, excessive restrictions on land use, such as single-family zoning (aka multifamily housing bans), minimum lot sizes, setback requirements, height limits, and parking requirements serve to artificially drive up the cost of housing. These restrictions make new housing development either outright illegal or prohibitively expensive, ensuring that wealthy communities can exclude many who can’t afford a large single-family detached home with a yard. If denser living arrangements were allowed (e.g., fourplexes or apartments), multiple families of lesser means could effectively pool their resources to afford living on a plot of land that could otherwise house only one family.
Connecticut’s refusal to allow needed housing development is particularly unfortunate, as Fairfield County in particular benefits from proximity and rail access to the massive job market in New York City. It is a travesty that we have Metro-North stations, subsidized by state and federal dollars, that feed directly to Manhattan and yet have only parking lots and single-family mansions next to them. This inefficient land use deprives many thousands of people of the opportunity to live in transit-rich, job-adjacent areas, and contributes to an aging, declining population and a weak local economy, as young people choose to move elsewhere with lower costs of living.
Further, restrictive zoning laws contribute to car-dependency and suburban sprawl. Mandating parking for every development and banning mixed-use buildings forces homes and businesses to be spread out from each other. This has numerous negative environmental and economic effects: our neighborhoods are unwalkable, cars are required for almost all trips, and we end up with more traffic deaths/injuries, air pollution, and carbon emissions. Sprawl necessitates environmental destruction as more homes gobble up more land, and suck up tax revenues as we must maintain services (roads, sewers, utilities) to these spread-out homes.
If Connecticut wants to be a vibrant, growing, economically and environmentally sustainable state that people want to move to, we must reform both state and local zoning laws to make our housing more affordable, our cities more livable, and reduce car dependency. This means ending bans on multifamily housing in residential areas, eliminating mandatory parking requirements, allowing ADUs (accessory dwelling units) and other homes by-right (meaning you don’t have to have a public hearing just to build a backyard cottage). Areas within walking/biking distance of transit stops should also allow significantly denser mixed-use development by-right with no parking minimums, to encourage the creation of walkable/bikeable neighborhoods and car-free households.
All residents — owners and renters alike — would benefit from more transit-oriented walkable neighborhoods, through more pleasant streetscapes, higher tax revenues from more efficient development, a more vibrant economy, and a younger workforce. Connecticut’s cities and suburbs have significant economic and social potential if we make it easier and more affordable for more people to live here. Other states and cities all across the country are moving in this direction to promote equal opportunity, housing affordability, and environmental sustainability, and we should not be left behind.
Dice Oh is a resident of Stamford and a member of People Friendly Stamford, a local community organization devoted to making walking and biking easier, safer, and more accessible for all. People Friendly Stamford is a member of the Desegregate Connecticut coalition, devoted to promoting inclusion in Connecticut land use.