Greenwich embodies everything wrong with Connecticut’s housing policies. Within its Affordable Housing “Plan” there is an admission that Greenwich lacks moderate and low-income housing options, but this realization comes with zero introspection as to how the city arrived at this point.

It is as if the fact that Greenwich has household incomes over 180K, is 2.6% Black and has median gross rents exceeding $2,100 are mere happenstance and not the result of decades long decision-making which prioritized architectural conformity and exclusivity over housing people.

2023 Community Editorial Board CEB Thumbnail

Even after recognizing that the town has become a rich and exclusive enclave, no change in governing practice has occurred or appears forthcoming. That’s because the exclusion is the point. The town of Greenwich simply doesn’t believe they need to allow other people to live there.

There is nothing special about Greenwich (48 square miles) that indicates why Stamford (52 square miles) should have 2.7 times the population density. Water, sewer capacity and environmental concerns are often cited as reasons Greenwich cannot support additional growth. However, the lack of sewer and water capacity is a result of Greenwich choosing to underinvest in expanding those capacities over the preceding decades.

Additionally, any argument considering environmental concerns cuts against the Greenwich model. Walkable, dense neighborhoods near mass transit are significantly more energy and resource efficient than car-centric, sprawling, single family developments. The idea that we must block more efficient forms of housing to hoard resources for inefficient forms of housing is nonsensical.

Zach Oberholtzer
Zach Oberholtzer

Zoning is a tool that works by what it prevents, not what it encourages. As outlined in “Arbitrary lines” by M. Nolan Gray, zoning was invented when restrictive covenants proved unable to deliver the desired degree of exclusion. Covenants were difficult to enforce and gave residents little control over nearby properties. Maybe you want to keep your single-family neighborhood architecturally pure, but you could not prevent your neighbor taking the extra money from the developer wanting to build a fourplex. With zoning you can just make that fourplex illegal.

Greenwich has made great use in zoning for these exclusionary purposes best evidenced by the fact that the population has barely changed from 1970-2020 (59,755-63,514). According to the founder of Desegregate CT Sara Bornin in her article, “Zoning by a thousand cuts”  systemic and intentioned effort began in Greenwich in the 1950s and 60s to layer restrictions on the types of housing that could be built. Over the past decade Greenwich built about 1,120 units of housing, whereas Stamford has built ~6,380 units. In other words, Greenwich zoning is much more effective at excluding housing than Stamford, which should not be construed as an endorsement of Stamford zoning practices.

Greenwich claims that it fears the wrong kind of development, not new citizens. Charitably, this may be understandable that one would be worried how changes in the built environment may impact their daily lives. But we need not be charitable to a community that: caps density at 18 units/acre, caps building heights at four stories, has large swaths of land with four-acre lot minimums, lobbies to change 8-30g rules to make it easier to meet the requirements without creating any new units, is incapable of considering that increased allowable density mitigates high land cost, and has written in the solutions section of its affordable housing plan to consider paying 8-30g developers to build less housing.

Taken together, it is clear that Greenwich prioritizes aesthetics over finding ways to welcome more neighbors into their community. And we must be clear what is meant by the word aesthetic: it means exposure to a building that is five stories tall.

It is impossible to disentangle the exclusionary zoning question from questions regarding who counts in a society. In a democratic society, in which the conceit—at least rhetorically—is that every citizen counts equally as member of the civic polity, a policy of exclusionary zoning is quite perverse. Zoning segregates society based on class, regardless of the zoner’s intent, and therefore must segregate on race as well.

This segregation is enforced by nominally democratic means, i.e. by citizens in these exclusionary towns voting to create and enforce the exclusionary zoning rules. But who gets to vote in those elections has already been decided by the zoning in question. Proponents of this type of exclusion are quick to retort that not everyone can live in the community. And while trivially true, it fails to contend with the fact that who is living in that community now is not based on physical barriers, natural process or desire but is artificially and arbitrarily capped by the whims of whoever happens to be the current residents. In a democratic society, people should not be able to explicitly exclude their fellow citizens from access to economic opportunity based on a fear of five-story buildings.

Exclusionary zoning is largely the purview of local governments, but the state can decide whether to enable and enforce those rules. First, lawmakers should pass laws overriding the most obnoxious parts of local zoning. The Fair Share housing bill, HB6633, accomplishes this by superseding some parts of the local zoning code if a community is failing to meet its clearly defined affordable housing goals.

Second, the state officials should begin ignoring the concerns of towns that are clearly disingenuous actors in the affordable housing discussion. It is impossible to square a demand for more affordable housing with a demand for the city landscape and population to never change. The adage “ignore what people say, watch what they do” applies here. Greenwich by its actions, affordable housing plan, and exclusionary zoning rules has shown that the city has no interest in expanding housing opportunities.

Lawmakers should feel under no obligation to take the objections of Greenwich and towns of their ilk in good faith when they complain about curbs to the overreach of their zoning boards. The state should remember that the solution to our housing crisis is mind-numbingly simple. Build more housing.

The difficulty lies in getting cities like Greenwich to let that happen.

Zach Oberholtzer is a member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.