Yes, segregation exists in our state. Yes, there are things we can do about it. But the important question is: are we?
The failure to pass H.B. 5429 reminds us yet again of the answer: not enough.
The raised bill was an act concerning transit-oriented development, which essentially means building with access to public transportation in mind. The bill proposed to allow municipalities to build, as of right, an average of at least 15 homes near at least one train or CTFastrak station and set aside at least 10% for affordable housing. “As of right” means without public hearings or special permits, which can significantly slow development, and municipalities would still have the power to decide how they would meet the average units per acre.
While the bill was not the panacea for exclusionary zoning practices, it did address a critical component of public health that current zoning laws severely impact: access to public transportation. Public transportation connects people to jobs, education, nutritious food, and health care. Women, people ages 25-29, Black workers, and low-income workers are also more likely than other commuters to rely on public transportation, and restricting access to public transit also disproportionately impacts older individuals and people with disabilities.
As echoed by rising gas prices, owning and maintaining a vehicle is expensive. For people in lower-income households, cars can be out of reach, and since people of color are overrepresented in lower income households, barriers to owning a vehicle disproportionately impact Black and brown communities. In Connecticut, although Black and Latinx residents made up 10.5 % and 16.5% of the population for whom poverty status was determined, 17.5% of Black and 20.1% of Latinx residents reported living below the poverty level.
The state has 40 towns with at least one train or CTFastrak station but over half make it difficult or impossible to build as of right, multifamily housing near them. The municipalities that make it easier to build around transit stations are larger, more diverse cities like Hartford and Bridgeport. The towns with the most restrictions are the wealthiest and Whitest of the group, including Greenwich and Fairfield.
Denying people the choice of where to live denies their livelihood. Research has illustrated the powerful connection between health and housing —people who live in urban areas face poorer housing conditions, less access to health care and nutritious foods, and environmental hazards like pollution. Covid-19 has also exacerbated existing racial health disparities, and densely populated areas make social distancing difficult.
Connecticut’s zoning laws maintain the status quo economic and racial segregation. The word “segregation” might conjure images of separate lines and “Whites only” signs. Some might even think, “That doesn’t happen anymore.” But the harsh and horrifying reality is that it absolutely does. Segregation today looks like restricting people’s choice of where to live. Municipalities use zoning codes to prevent certain people from living in their neighborhood while welcoming others. Although the signs aren’t posted, the message remains: Whites only.
Testimonies In support of H.B. 5429 included Conencticut’s Commission on Human Rights, the Partnership for Strong Communities, and AARP and amplified the bill’s advancement of equity, the economy, and the environment. Building more affordable housing near public transit would help boost local economies with more residents frequenting local businesses and utilizing services. Expanding ridership would also lead to a better return on the state’s 3.5 billion dollar investment in public transportation. In addition to economic advantages, less reliance on personal vehicles would also reduce Connecticut’s carbon footprint to help address climate change and pollution.
Some of the opposing testimonies included first selectpersons from the richest and whitest towns that have at least one transit station like Fairfield, Greenwich, Westport, Wilton, and Darien. They contended that H.B. 5429 was yet another attempt by the state, or “Hartford,” to control local governments, even though Connecticut’s current zoning regulations allow every municipality to make their own rules about zoning.
Testimonies against the proposed bill talked of freedom. But the question in response to these folks, and the many who say share that same value, is a necessary one: When you aim to restrict the freedom of others, can you truly value it?
Morgan Finn is a Graduate MSW Student at the University of Connecticut, School of Social Work.