Rebuttal: Zoning reform is long overdue
In a March 24 opinion piece titled A plea for a hold on zoning reform, author Alexis Harrison of Fairfield attacked H.B. 6107 and (without naming it) S.B. 1024. As a fellow Fairfield County resident (from the neighboring town of Trumbull) who thinks zoning reform is one key to building a more prosperous and inclusive Connecticut, I’d like to counter its claims and make an argument of my own.
Her March 24 piece involved a series of somewhat meandering claims, but the core assertions were that:
- H.B. 6107, an affordable housing bill, would damage the environment and climate change
- Neither bill would enhance affordability or help the state’s most needy families
- SB 1024’s provisions would be “shifting population from cities to suburbs and towns rather than re-populating cities,” though it’s unclear who this strawman is aimed at (it’s also unclear to me the exact harms city residents would bring to Connecticut’s suburbs if they did move in, the piece never specifies)
- Despite a 24-hour-long Planning and Development public hearing, the process was moving too quickly and involving too few voices (i.e., process complaints).
The author (whose civic contributions I genuinely admire) is a frequent opponent of zoning reform, often using fears about environmental degradation and the loss of local control to oppose multifamily housing in Fairfield County. In a previous Connecticut Mirror rebuttal, I argued that anyone seriously concerned for the environment and climate change would be pushing for as much housing near existing transit lines as possible, not objecting to it. As for local control and home rule, Yale Law Professor David Schleicher effectively dismantled that argument in this New Haven Register piece.
The attacks on affordability and opportunity also seem misguided. As Jenny Schuetz of the Brookings Institute has pointed out, there are actually two distinct housing challenges confronting Fairfield County: middle class people struggle to afford homes because of a supply shortage, and low-income households can’t afford a place to live generally. This is why H.B. 6107 and S.B. 1024 make so much sense together. We need to expand housing supply and make provisions for low-income households. Desirable coastal towns with trains to Grand Central Terminal will always be relatively expensive, sure, but a new unit built in Fairfield or Trumbull takes some supply pressure off of a young couple looking for a starter home in Monroe. Given the connection between neighborhoods and life success, more people living in opportunity-rich towns will benefit families and Connecticut as a whole.
Crucially, it feels like opposition to zoning reform has less to do with the specifics of the bills than with the general notion of change and the perceived harms it’ll bring. But change is an inexorable part of life, and the bills before the General Assembly will help bring what Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn calls “incremental investment tied to hopes and dreams about the future.”
Historically, Fairfield County has been a dynamic place for the American Dream. In 1920 the town of Fairfield’s population was 21,000. Fifty years later, after the baby boom and G.I. Bill, it had more than doubled to 56,000. My town of Trumbull had a similar trajectory: in 1950 it had a population of just 8,000, but quadrupled it in only 20 years, reaching 32,000 in 1970. However, since 1970 both towns’ populations are essentially flat.
If the residents of 1920 had applied the same logic as zoning reform opponents of 2020, there would be no Fairfield or Trumbull as they currently exist. Thankfully they didn’t, and thousands of families gained the opportunity to live in thriving, productive places like Fairfield and Trumbull. We can do the same today by unleashing ADU’s (accessory dwelling units), allowing duplexes on Main Streets and expanding apartments near train stations. We can choose to think of these first steps as scary changes, or we can choose to see the grandparents that will live closer to their grandchildren because of a backyard ADU. We can see a nearby duplex as a threat, or we can envision the young family we’ll be inviting to backyard barbecues. That optimistic vision of growth and community is what they saw in 1950, and we can build a more inclusive 21st century version of that American dream.
We can’t allow communities in Fairfield County to freeze themselves in their 1970 built environments and hoard opportunity. Expanding housing access and housing diversity is a win-win; our communities will be richer economically and socially because of it. Too often, pleas for “wait” simply mean “never.” Let’s not wait to pass zoning reform; instead, let’s begin building a more prosperous, inclusive and vibrant Connecticut.
Thomas Broderick lives in Trumbull.
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