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Civil rights group sues Woodbridge for allegedly violating housing laws

Woodbridge housing lawsuit presser
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Constance Royster of the Open Communities Alliance speaks on the steps of the New Haven County Courthouse with lawyers and housing advocates announcing a lawsuit against the town of Woodbridge, Conn. Royster says she sees the area of Connecticut she grew up in as a “beacon of opportunity” — but exclusionary zoning threatens that hope. “For decades, towns like Woodbridge have used zoning to effectively erect walls around their borders, keeping new affordable and multifamily housing from being built — and new residents out,” Royster said.

Civil rights attorneys and housing advocates have sued the town of Woodbridge for what they say is a violation of fair housing laws that aim to make Connecticut towns more equitable and diverse.

Woodbridge, a suburb of New Haven, prohibits multifamily housing of three units or more on most of its residential land. Advocates claim that’s exclusionary zoning, which they say has led to a lack of affordable housing that often disproportionately impacts Black and Latino residents in Connecticut.

“We are here today to confront this history and move us towards a more equitable future, a future where Connecticut's towns guide to their own zoning, but do so within the parameters of laws designed to ensure that families of all ranges of incomes have choices in every community of the state,” said Erin Boggs, director of the Open Communities Alliance and the principal of Open Communities Trust, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Boggs spoke at a news conference Tuesday morning in front of New Haven’s state courthouse where the suit’s four plaintiffs and supporters would file the case.

Connecticut Public has reached out to Woodbridge First Selectwoman Beth Heller and Kristine Sullivan, a land use analyst with the town’s planning and zoning commission, and is waiting for a response.

The lawsuit comes almost two years after the Open Communities Trust leased a residential property in Woodbridge in hopes of turning it into low-density multifamily housing. The trust submitted a proposal to the town’s planning and zoning board that would make that development possible not only on the leased property but also in other residential areas in Woodbridge.

After an extensive public hearing process, the town did not adopt the proposal and instead made small changes to its zoning regulations that town officials said were a step forward. Changes included allowing multifamily housing on 1.6% of residential land by permit when served by public water and sewer infrastructure and permitting accessory dwelling units.

The decision was “designed to provide a framework for additional housing options and choices in all residential zones, with some options and choices only allowed in certain zones in order to protect health and safety,” according to the planning and zoning board’s ruling on the application.

“Instead of engaging in a serious effort to equitably rezone, the town amended our proposal in a way that makes a mockery of state zoning requirements and civil rights obligations,” Boggs said.

Woodbridge has a little over 1% of housing deemed as affordable under the state’s 8-30g statute. Meanwhile, New Haven has over 33% as of last year, according to the Connecticut Department of Housing.

Advocates said this action is a last resort to remedy the lack of effort to offer affordable housing in the suburb through zoning changes and to set a model for other towns in Connecticut and beyond.

Woodbridge housing lawsuit presser
Ryan Caron King
/
Connecticut Public
Students with Yale Law School and other housing advocates stand on the New Haven Courthouse steps during a news conference announcing a lawsuit against the town of Woodbridge that claims the town’s zoning violates the state’s Zoning Enabling and Fair Housing acts, as well as the due process, equal protection and anti-segregation clauses of the state Constitution. “The town's zoning regulations do not promote the general welfare as the state Constitution requires, said Mira Netsky (center).

“While Woodbridge is the only defendant in this one litigation, a ruling for the plaintiffs in this lawsuit would highlight the illegality of similar zoning practices in other affluent towns in Connecticut that contribute to the state’s insufficient housing stock as well as racial and economic segregation,” said Mira Netsky, a law student with Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization, one of the legal representatives in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the town’s exclusionary zoning practices violate the state’s Zoning Enabling Act, which requires towns to provide housing opportunities for low- to moderate-income households. In addition, the plaintiffs claim the town allegedly violates Connecticut's Fair Housing Act and the state Constitution for perpetrating segregation.

Camila Vallejo is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. She is a bilingual reporter based out of Fairfield County and welcomes all story ideas at cvallejo@ctpublic.org.

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