With the 25th anniversary of the Sheff v. O’Neill decision coming up in July, it’s time to fulfill the ruling’s true legacy and reform exclusionary zoning in Connecticut.
Since the 1996 decision, the state has spent billions building new magnet schools (see Jacqueline Rabe Thomas’ January 2021 Connecticut Mirror article), but magnet schools don’t address the root causes of educational inequalities: our housing policies.
Two and a half decades after one of the most important court cases in Connecticut history, our housing and zoning laws continue to ensure that many of our children live and learn in economically and racially segregated towns and neighborhoods. And while Sheff v. O’Neill originated in Hartford, this is a problem that affects cities and suburbs, white and minority students, alike. As long as housing prices keep opportunity concentrated in a set of unaffordable towns, our state can’t achieve its full economic or social potential.
Sheff v. O’Neill was an education case that was really about housing. In 1989 Hartford fourth grader Milo Sheff became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit asserting that segregation in the Hartford-area public schools led urban students to receive a worse education than their suburban peers. The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed and in 1996 ruled that Hartford’s students were racially, ethnically and economically isolated.
The court wrote that the existence of severe racial and ethnic isolation in the public school system, regardless of whether it has occurred de jure or de facto, deprives schoolchildren of a substantially equal educational opportunity and requires the state to take further remedial action.
Importantly, the justices acknowledged that “the state has not intentionally segregated racial and ethnic minorities.” Instead, the state inadvertently promoted school segregation because a 1909 law established “town boundaries as the dividing line between all school districts in the state.” In other words, schools in Connecticut are segregated by class and by race because towns in Connecticut are segregated by class and race. The root issue in Sheff was housing, not education.
It’s hard to overstate how much exclusionary zoning laws work to produce the outcomes seen in Sheff v. O’Neill. Desegregate Connecticut, a nonprofit group pushing for zoning reform in the state, recently found that 90.6% of land in Connecticut allows single family homes by right, but only 2% of land is zoned to allow four-unit apartments. Exclusive single family zoning, minimum home sizes and parking requirements drive up prices, artificially limit housing supply and try to ensure only the “right” type of people can afford to live in prosperous suburbs. Expensive housing in Connecticut locks lower and middle class students out of opportunity-rich towns and top school districts.
Relatively simple changes, such as making accessory dwelling units (a.k.a. “granny flats”) legal, allowing apartments by-right near transit and building “missing middle” housing on our main streets will make our communities more affordable to every family. And where you grow up really matters.
Harvard University’s Raj Chetty and his colleagues at the Opportunity Atlas found that “neighborhoods in which children grow up shape children’s outcomes in adulthood” and concluded that “low-income families are segregated into lower-opportunity areas.” Fortunately, building more multifamily housing and expanding access to high-quality schools is not a zero-sum game. Research confirms that nearby apartments actually increase home values, and a new student learning to read doesn’t stop another student from thriving. We can expand our economy and tax base, get Connectcut growing again, construct dynamic cities and make our state more just all at once.
I teach in Ridgefield and see how growing up in an affluent, opportunity-rich community benefits my students; as an educator I want the same thing for every child. The true legacy of Sheff v. O’Neill is straightforward: as long as housing and school districts are linked, we can’t build a more vibrant and just state until we tackle exclusionary zoning. Let’s use the 25th anniversary of this landmark case to propel us towards a better Connecticut.
Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.