My muted reaction to the Meghan/Harry/Oprah event is shocking my friends. Denying help to a suicidal person or regarding visible melanin as a birth defect are, of course, reprehensible, but royalty is based on a fiction that some people are better than others by virtue of their ancestry. Racism and indifference to human suffering are very much on brand. No U.S. citizen is going to topple that institution.
If our outrage is to be more than virtue signaling, it should focus on the suffering and racism in our backyards. This is considerably less comfortable than Windsor bashing, because it puts you in conflict with the people you run into at the grocery store.
Last year I published an op-ed here about my local (East Haddam) Planning and Zoning Commission. The commissioners spent a strange interlude explaining why they were not racist (always a risky thing to do) by stating that Black people don’t live here because they don’t like the countryside. Or can’t afford it. Will Smith would be welcome to move to East Haddam if he wanted, they insisted. These are the men who determine how housing can get constructed in this town, which is 95% white.
It was quite a show, but the interminable P&Z meetings that I covered in other towns as a reporter tell me that the script was not all that original. Today, no training is required for these officials whose decisions have far-reaching consequences for us all, in terms of the environment, the availability of affordable housing and even the legal liability to which our towns are subject. Yes, they are volunteers. But so are many firefighters and ambulance crews. We would not allow them to go out into the world without training, because somebody could get hurt.
Somebody does get hurt by the way that zoning is set up in the 169 resolutely independent municipalities that make up our state. Connecticut has the 10th highest housing costs in the nation. Even before the pandemic, 31% of Black households in the state were paying more than half their income on rent. While household size is falling, the stock of multi-family housing that could accommodate smaller families is not keeping up. Local zoning is a strong factor in this problem, as towns put regulations in place that deliberately raise housing costs and keep communities from becoming more diverse. This is so common it has a name – exclusionary zoning.
In 2016, the Obama Administration created a toolkit to help local P&Z commissions do better. “The growing severity of undersupplied housing markets is jeopardizing housing affordability for working families, increasing income inequality by reducing less-skilled workers’ access to high-wage labor markets, and stifling GDP growth by driving labor migration away from the most productive regions,” the report reads. “By modernizing their approaches to housing development regulation, states and localities can restrain unchecked housing cost growth, protect homeowners, and strengthen their economies.”
It’s not a standoff between trees and people. There are innovative arrangements that can get more people into housing while still preserving open areas and natural resources. For the sake of equity, the economy and the environment, all land use officials need to become familiar with them.
In the past year, when this country could no longer ignore the evils of poverty and racism, officials made public statements about their anti-racism and their conviction that no American should suffer without the basic necessities of life. That speaker list includes many of the people who serve in the General Assembly and will be taking up SB 1024 and SB 1026, two bills that will require a modicum of training for land use officials that includes the topics of affordable and fair housing. There is nothing revolutionary about this: Seven other states have such standards in place; and Connecticut already requires training for inland wetlands officials.
Our legislators have the opportunity to make their words count now. The gadflies who always decry “state mandates” will again. Legislators should take the heat and vote to make sure that public officials are prepared to deliver the housing resources we need to thrive, all of us. Rather than gaping at racism in the palace, we must acknowledge that there is plenty of inequity right here at home. We must insist that our legislators work to banish it.
Colleen Shaddox is co-author of Broke in America: Seeing, Understanding, and Ending U.S. Poverty, with Joanne Samuel Goldblum.