In Connecticut, affordable housing remains a hotly contested issue. ProPublica

The state’s current approach to Fairfield County — trying to avoid political backlash by appealing to some sort of generosity of spirit among wealthy towns — isn’t working. Whether it’s Darien once again rejecting the open choice program or New Canaan and Fairfield blocking new housing, noblesse oblige as policy is a dead-end.

When it comes to the two most important issues in a family’s life — housing and education — the Gold Coast’s wealthiest towns feel no obligation to Connecticut and its people. As Hugh Bailey pointed out in his great opinion piece about New Canaan, only state-level action can unleash the region as an engine of opportunity and help Connecticut reach its full potential.

Thomas Broderick

Fairfield County’s schools are notoriously unequal, and the state’s voluntary open choice program isn’t working. Last year, Darien (which has a median home price over $1.5 million) made a widely-criticized decision to reject 16 kindergarten students from Norwalk. Danbury’s neighboring suburbs followed suit and also turned down the chance to participate in open choice, forcing the program to be shelved until 2023-2024 at the earliest.

This year — with much less public scrutiny — Darien once again rejected the open choice program. Despite the superintendent’s support, the board voted unanimously against it, citing a lack of resources and claiming that the program didn’t fit their priorities at the moment. Clearly, the district’s DEI initiative, implemented last February, doesn’t call for direct, tangible actions like having Darien’s students learn alongside diverse children.

The failure of the voluntary open choice program pales in comparison to the failures of the region’s housing market. Here again, the state’s “hands-off” approach to its suburbs hasn’t worked.

A 2017 law called for towns to create affordable housing plans on their own terms, yet months after the deadline this fall only 114/169 had submitted one. The main reason? There were no consequences for failing to create one, nor are there any mechanisms to ensure towns actually follow through on the plans they do submit.

Similarly, the American Rescue Plan gave Connecticut towns $1.5 billion to spend, yet only 1% of those funds went towards housing. Not only did these gentle pushes fail to work, it’s telling that the most effective tool to build housing in the suburbs — 8-30g — is not voluntary and is the subject of baseless, vociferous attacks by those same wealthy suburbs.

In his December 11 opinion piece in the Connecticut Post, Bailey wisely wrote “New Canaan likes to believe it’s an island. It doesn’t have, say, a hospital, or a courthouse, a major power plant or much of anything else that underpins society and allows it to function, but its residents are happy to pretend none of that matters.” I couldn’t agree more, and I think the issues go deeper.

It’s not just that wealthy suburbs want to wall themselves off from the physical infrastructure a modern society needs (though they do), they want to wall themselves off from all the struggles everyday people face, simultaneously looking down at their local cities while heaping society’s poverty and challenges on them. For example, most of us agree that immigration makes our state better, but not every town wants to share in the challenge of educating English language learners. And most of us understand that poverty and mental health issues affect many, but many towns want to leave it to the cities.

The current paradigm is clear. The suburbs of Fairfield County want convenient access to the best job market in the country, but don’t want to allow a single apartment near those train stations. They want access to restaurants, coffee shops and everyday services, but don’t want to house, educate or help the people and their families that staff them. And that’s the key point — discussions about housing and education can become abstract, but there are real families behind them. Every single housing unit a wealthy suburb rejects is a person denied the opportunity to build a home, decorate a menorah or Christmas tree, and send their kids to a great school.

While it seems far in the distance, the 2023 legislative session is around the corner. The governor has a mandate to make Connecticut as great as it can be, and we need his leadership now. Contrary to the way they act, Fairfield County’s suburbs are in fact part of society and are also responsible for making it a prosperous, just place. And whether it’s open choice or affordable housing, Fairfield County’s richest suburbs have repeatedly shown that they can’t be begged or shamed into their responsibilities. Instead, we need state-level action this upcoming session.

Importantly, building more homes and educating more students aren’t punishments —they’re opportunities. Our suburbs can continue to see a nearby duplex as a threat, or they can envision the young family they’ll get to know and be inviting to backyard barbecues. That optimistic vision of growth and community is what Fairfield County had in 1950, and we can build a more inclusive 21st century version of that American dream.

Expanding housing and educational access is a win-win, and places like New Canaan and Darien will be more welcoming, vibrant places because of it. 

Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.