'Deal with it head on': Report highlights zoning disparities affecting affordable housing

Photo of Katrina Koerting
An artist rendering for a recently approved affordable housing project in Fairfield along the Merritt Parkway.

An artist rendering for a recently approved affordable housing project in Fairfield along the Merritt Parkway.

Contributed photo /

A lack of land for multi-family homes, limited infrastructure and local zoning restrictions are among the challenges faced in increasing towns’ affordable housing supply, according to a new report from Open Communities Alliance.

“The easier you make it, the less it’s going to cost and the more you’re probably going to get,” Roger Maldonado, an attorney with the organization, said at a presentation Thursday evening.

The report, Zoning for Equity, examines 12 Connecticut towns that have low percentages of affordable housing, including Darien, North Haven, Southbury, Fairfield, Ridgefield, Orange and Westport.

Members of the Open Communities Alliance — a civil rights organization that focuses on expanding opportunities in the state, especially with housing choice — said the report was meant to illustrate impediments with local planning and zoning so that towns could improve affordable housing options in a community-led way, crafting solutions that work for them.

“It’s meant to be a diagnostic tool,” Maldonado said.

The towns were also selected because they are predominantly wealthy and white, while still representing a variety of town sizes and counties, Maldonado said.

“Westport is particularly striking in that it’s double our wealthiest county (in terms of median income),” Maldonado said.

Westport’s median income is more than $200,000 — double the median income for Fairfield County. On a similar note Orange’s poverty rate is about 25 percent of New Haven County’s rate, he said.

Several panelists said that Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country. Zoning laws, available housing, and housing costs are a large factor of that, which in turn creates educational disparities based on race, ethnicity and income between the towns.

“Housing segregation is the No. 1 cause of school segregation,” said John Brittain, a lawyer who grew up in Norwalk and was part of the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill case that tackled school segregation in Connecticut.

Brittain said he both lived and litigated the issue and zoning remained one of his main concerns.

“Black and Latinos are disproportionately living in these low opportunity areas,” said Erin Boggs, Open Communities Alliance’s executive director.

Municipal rules and practices “can play a central role in driving and solidifying these great social justice divides,” according to the report.

This includes the requirement in most of these towns for a public hearing on multi-family projects, which generally attracts community opposition and might kill the project, but not on single-family homes. Lot size restrictions and stringent density limits are also obstacles, Maldonado said.

The affordable projects that do come into these towns tend to be age-restricted or prohibitive to families based on the number of bedrooms available, Maldonado said.

The report claims this also harms the state’s economy and, with Connecticut ranked ninth in the country for housing costs, is one of the reasons for the state’s stagnant population growth.

“Most of our wealth comes from home ownership and the equity we have on our homes that create generational wealth,” said Cheryl Sharp, with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.

She said local zoning laws and regulations, while neutral on their face, are affecting Black and brown families.

“It is the state’s responsibility, as well as the municipalities’ responsibility, to unearth the problem and deal with it head on,” Sharp said.

She said an official complaint can be filed against a town or state organization, but the more preferable route is having the different organizations and towns work together.

“We don’t want to be litigious if we don’t have to be,” Sharp said, adding the commission also published a recent report on zoning and discrimination that includes suggested solutions and had similar findings to the alliance’s report.

Panelists urged people speak up at local meetings, to show the need for these housing options and reach out to legislators to help with the overarching zoning requirements at the state level.

The report shows swaths of these 12 towns are dedicated to single-family homes with only sections along the highways for multi-family. Panelists said this further separates this housing and greatly restricts where it can go, making it harder to add.

Southbury is an exception with a higher number of two-family homes, but still lacks the larger apartment complexes.

Boggs said she’s looking forward to the next round of discussions that will bring in town planners and others at the local zoning level.

“This is a start,” Boggs said.