What do the following cases have in common: Darien refusing to desegregate its schools, Greenwich blocking a hospital expansion, and Woodbridge banning multifamily housing? They are all examples of “local control” run amok: the governance of society hijacked to elevate the parochial interests of wealthy local property-owners over the health and welfare of the people as a whole.
“Local control” refers to states devolving legal power to municipalities, typically in the realm of land use and education. It superficially sounds nice: who doesn’t want their local community to be involved in important policy choices? We are all inclined to trust the near over the far, and “local” decision-making sounds more familiar and trustworthy than anything happening in D.C. or Hartford.
The problem is that many of our society’s biggest problems are regional in nature, and localities do not have the right incentives to produce the best outcomes for all. Take for instance the massive housing shortage that our country faces, with Connecticut having the lowest rental vacancy rate among all 50 states. Housing needs are a regional issue — they are determined by how many people want to move to an area for jobs, work, or family. Our state leaders love to talk about how hard they are working to bring jobs to Connecticut, but they have no state-level plan to create enough new housing supply to ensure that all those workers can live here.
Local governments, particularly wealthy ones, often do not want new housing, particularly the more affordable multifamily options that students, younger professionals, and the working class need. They say it changes the “neighborhood character” for the worse, that buildings taller than two stories are an “eyesore,” that there will be too much competition for free on-street parking, that it will increase traffic. They may feel, if not say outright, that they don’t want those of lesser means living near their large houses.
Regardless of the validity of these opinions, they should not carry more weight than the broader societal need to provide homes for workers and families who need to live here. Despite what many seem to think, towns are not private country clubs. The “every locality for itself” mentality means no one is thinking about how to meet our aggregate needs for housing, medical facilities, or education, and is making local decisions purely based on narrow considerations about parking, traffic, and aesthetics. This is no way to run a society.
Even in areas where local governance is needed, our systems as they are set up are fundamentally undemocratic and exclusionary. Research has shown that those who participate in local politics either through voting or showing up to town meetings are overwhelmingly wealthy, older, property owners whose desire for stasis often conflicts with the interests of younger people, renters, workers, and families who need access to homes, jobs, child care, medical care, and the like. Local governance thus excludes broad public participation and elevates the interests of the local propertied elite who overwhelmingly dislike change and development.
Reform is needed. The state needs to step in and set ground rules over land use, education, and siting of medical/educational facilities, rather than meekly deferring to privileged locals most willing and able to show up to a 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting to complain about parking and traffic. This means having clear local and regional targets for new homes that localities must comply with through rezonings, with state-level preemption being the default if towns do not comply. This is not a radical idea — states throughout the country are passing zoning preemption bills to ensure that it remains legal to build enough housing for the next generation.
We also need local and state representatives to understand the sheer social cost of the housing shortage: families paying half their income in rent, workers commuting for hours because they cannot afford to live anywhere near work, and young people fleeing for lower-cost states. These people are not represented at all in the current political process.
“Local control” as it currently exists is not a democratic ideal to emulate: it is generally wielded against growth and progress, used to preserve an unequal and segregationist status quo, and is dooming Connecticut’s long-term prospects. Tougher statewide leadership is needed to address these problems head-on.
Dice Oh is a resident of Stamford with a strong interest in housing abundance and sustainable transportation. He is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.