A group of attorneys and housing advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the town of Woodbridge alleging its zoning policies violate the state’s Fair Housing Act and portions of the state constitution by restricting the number of multi-family units that can be built.

The lawsuit is a move advocates believe could have far-reaching implications on state and national housing and zoning policy by building a model for other communities to push back on restrictive zoning policies. The plaintiffs want the town to plan and zone for its “fair share” of affordable housing, a policy housing advocates pushed for during the last legislative session.

The lawsuit alleges that Woodbridge has violated Connecticut’s Zoning Enabling Act and Fair Housing Act, as well as due process, equal protection and anti-segregation portions of the state Constitution.

Woodbridge, a wealthy, largely white suburb of New Haven, has been criticized for years for its zoning regulations, which housing experts say lock out low-income families. Such policies also disproportionately disadvantage families of color, experts say.

The town’s zoning regulations prohibit multi-family housing of three or more units in the 98.4% of residential land that lacks access to public water and sewer. The regulations also require a special review in the rest of the town for all forms of multi-family housing, according to a press release from the alliance.

Attorneys from the Open Communities Alliance, along with law students and professors at a fair housing development clinic at Yale Law School, petitioned Woodbridge’s Planning and Zoning Commission two years ago for permission to build a four-unit house on a 1.5 acre lot that is zoned for a single-family home. More importantly, the group also asked Woodbridge to completely overhaul local zoning regulations to allow the town’s “fair share” of affordable housing to be built.

From left, Anika Singh Lemar, Erin Boggs, Connie Royster and Karen Anderson pose for a portrait at the Woodbridge Town Hall on in 2020. The team filed an application to build a four-unit building on a two acre lot in Woodbridge that is zoned for only a single-family home. (File photo) Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Erin Boggs, the executive director of Open Community Alliance, said during a press conference Tuesday that her group was disappointed with the town’s response.

“Instead of engaging in a serious effort to equitably rezone, the town amended our proposal in a way that makes a mockery of state zoning requirements and civil rights obligations,” Boggs said. “This is par for the course for a town that for generations has zoned to exclude time after time, year after year … At each moment when Woodbridge had the chance to zone for economic and racial diversity in accordance with state laws, it did not.”

Reached by phone, a person answering the phone in the Woodbridge first selectman’s office declined comment on the civil suit Tuesday morning.

Zoning and land use policy has been a growing focal point in Connecticut for years, as rising rents have caused many families to become over-burdened by their housing costs.

Connecticut lacks about 85,400 units of housing that are affordable and available to its lowest-income renters, according to national estimates. Housing is considered affordable if people are spending up to a third of their incomes on housing costs, and rental housing tends to be more accessible for people with lower-incomes.

Where families live has long-term implications on their health and what schools their children attend, among other social indicators, experts say.

The plaintiffs in the suit include Open Communities Trust, which was launched by Open Communities Alliance, Orchard Road LLC, Garden Homes Fund, and residents Sally Connolly and Cary Gross.

Open Communities Trust is leasing a property in Woodbridge with the option to purchase and build multi-family, mixed-income housing, including some affordable housing.

Garden Homes Fund purchased the property in 2020, through the Orchard Road LLC, as a “first step toward its goal of enabling the construction of multifamily and affordable housing throughout Woodbridge,” according to the suit.

Connolly and Gross are white residents who seek the benefits of living in “a racially and economically integrated community with a diversity of housing options,” according to the complaint.

The Open Communities Trust worked with professionals to develop a plan to create a small-scale multi-family housing development on the property, but the town’s zoning policies prevent the planned construction on the property, the lawsuit says.

The suit claims that Woodbridge has rejected multiple attempts for zoning changes that would facilitate more multi-family housing over the span of decades.

Just over 1% of Woodbridge’s housing is designated as “affordable,” according to 2021 state Department of Housing data.

Residents have objected to affordable housing proposals for years, citing a variety of concerns: that residents would “climb over a fence and hurt my children or steal my car;” that it would spoil “the beauty of the Town;” and that development might encourage a resident of Hamden, New Haven, or West Haven to “come with their family” to Woodbridge, while expressing a preference for “young professionals,” according to the complaint.

Those three cities all have larger Black and Hispanic populations than Woodbridge, the complaint says.

Students with the Yale Law School and other housing advocates stand on the New Haven Courthouse steps during a press conference announcing a lawsuit against the town of Woodbridge that claims the town’s zoning violates the state’s Zoning Enabling and Fair Housing Acts, as well as the due process, equal protection, and anti-segregation clauses of the state constitution. “The town’s zoning regulations do not promote the general welfare as the state constitution requires, said Mira Netsky (center). Ryan Caron King / CT Public

Constance Royster, a board member with Open Communities Alliance, said exclusionary zoning practices have personal meaning for her family. They’d lived in the area and worked to achieve educational equality for years, she said. She’s continued that work at the alliance.

“Years of … advocacy and education around the issue of affordable and multifamily housing in Woodbridge have fallen on deaf ears,” said Royster, who is Black. “Luxury mansions continue to occupy zoning sanctioned multi-acre lots.”

The lawsuit asks that the town take several steps to plan for an increase in affordable housing, including passing zoning reforms and taking other affirmative steps that ensure the town meets its “fair share of the regional need for multifamily and affordable housing.”

The Open Communities Alliance is a leading group in a push to implement what’s called a “fair share” law in Connecticut. Efforts to pass such a policy stalled ahead of floor votes last session.

The law proposed last session would have required the state Office of Policy and Management to come up with a system to determine the need for more affordable housing regionally. Each town would have been told to plan and zone for a certain number of affordable units, based on each town’s wealth, median income compared to other towns in the region, percentage of housing stock that’s multifamily housing, and the poverty rate.

Such a policy was implemented in New Jersey because of a 1975 court decision.

Thomas Silverstein, associate director of the Fair Housing & Community Development Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the case could have implications for housing policy across Connecticut as well as nationally.

It could provide a model for other communities and developers, Silverstein said Tuesday. 

“Although the federal and state housing laws have prohibited exclusionary zoning for over half a century, exclusionary zoning remains rampant,” Silverstein said.

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Ginny is CT Mirror's children's issues and housing reporter a Report for America corps member. She covers a range of topics, from education and child welfare to affordable housing and zoning. Ginny grew up in Arkansas and graduated from the University of Arkansas' Lemke School of Journalism in 2017. She began her career at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette where she covered housing, homelessness, and juvenile justice on the investigations team. Along the way Ginny was awarded a 2019 Data Fellowship through the Annenberg Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California. She moved to Connecticut in 2021 and covered housing for Hearst Connecticut Media.