Desegregate Connecticut

Zoning reform took an important step forward in Connecticut with the passage of Public Act 21-29 in 2021, which among other things enables communities to create more housing by permitting accessory dwelling units on properties with large lots.

More housing enables seniors and young adults to stay in their own communities, and building this housing on existing lots helps preserve undeveloped forest and farmland.

The legislature is now considering how to create more walkable and transportation-oriented communities (TOC), a reform that would increase our housing stock of affordable housing, boost foot traffic for many local businesses, and reduce reliance on cars which produce 66% of ozone pollution in Connecticut.

Suburban commuters contribute disproportionately to ozone pollution in cities. This pollution harms all of us, especially residents in Connecticut’s cities where ~25% of households do not own a car. Together with industrial pollutants, these high levels of emissions lead to abnormally high rates of cancer and other debilitating, chronic, life-threatening, or rare diseases. Ozone exacerbates the risk of respiratory conditions like asthma, which are already heightened due to health hazards commonly found in cities.

The dearth of healthcare facilities in urban areas leads to uncontrolled asthma. Children who cannot get a good night’s sleep are inattentive in school, which inhibits learning.

Environmental health burdens affect the mental health of individuals, families, and communities. Mental health improves for families that are able to move into public or affordable housing, especially if that housing is in healthier neighborhoods.

By providing better opportunities, we help disrupt generational poverty and enable residents to realize their full potential while strengthening the tax base in their community.

An argument frequently raised against TOC in last year’s public testimony was that it might encourage migration out of cities and change the character of the suburbs.

Because Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the nation, it would be Black and other minority residents that would migrate. Note that the character of the suburbs was created by legal racism.

Certainly, we are not responsible for policies of the past, but white Americans continue to benefit from them. Wittingly or not, zoning is a major, non-racist sounding policy that sustains the segregation created in the past.

Our schools gloss over this history and some people prefer we never teach it. That blinds many white Americans (even those of good will) to the remnants of racism hidden within our society’s structure.

White, but not Black, veterans returning from World War II could use the GI Bill for education and to finance housing in newly established suburbs. Government-insured mortgages were denied to Black applicants or anyone who lived in integrated neighborhoods, a practice called redlining.

Instead, predatory lenders offered Black Americans expensive “lease-to-buy” financing for homes in neighborhoods that were increasingly segregated by white flight to the suburbs. With low wages, rent consumed the major portion of their incomes. Consequently, routine maintenance was sacrificed, and the housing stock deteriorated.

When unforeseen expenses resulted in missed rent payments, eviction meant loss of their entire investment and caused housing instability. An example is New Haven’s Dixwell-Newhallville neighborhood, which lost its major employer during this time, the Winchester Revolving Arms factory.

Along with the health burdens noted above, a vicious cycle led to ever deteriorating neighborhoods. Despite changes in the law, illegal harassment and exclusionary covenants dissuaded Black Americans from buying in white neighborhoods, often with police looking the other way.

Accordingly, few Black Americans accumulated wealth, as white wealth progressively increased through home ownership and a healthy environment to raise children.

Zoning ordinances across Connecticut made the suburbs even more exclusionary by mandating large minimum lot sizes and prohibiting accessory dwelling units and multifamily housing. These “race-neutral” ordinances limit the stock of affordable housing, drive higher house prices, and effectively maintain segregation.

A recent study of Richmond, VA exemplifies the persistent effects of past racism. Low-income neighborhoods have fewer trees and during the summer are hotter than wealthier neighborhoods. The study showed a close correlation between a heat map of Richmond today and the red-zoned neighborhoods mapped by banks and the federal government of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

Transit-oriented communities benefit many segments of society: Our grown children who would like to stay in Connecticut, if they could afford it; our seniors who would like to downsize and reduce their reliance on cars; and make it feasible for those who have scrimped and saved to better their families by leaving the city.

Let’s not allow the structural racism established only a generation ago dissuade us from growing our economy and tax base. Unless we support sensible reforms that can strengthen our whole state, we remain part of the problem.

Larry Rizzolo lives in Guilford.