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Zoning laws contribute to neighborhood segregation in CT, study finds

FILE, 2022: New Haven home-buyer Aleena Thomas looks out at the backyard of a home she's touring.
Tyler Russell
Connecticut Public
FILE, 2022: Home-buyer Aleena Thomas tours a West Haven home for sale. A study by the Urban Institute in Washington D.C. suggests, according to co-author Yonah Freemark, "That there is some use of zoning as a tool to exclude people with lower incomes and who are not white from large sections of cities, towns and suburbs throughout Connecticut."

Connecticut’s municipal zoning laws may be contributing to neighborhood segregation, according to a new study.

The studyby the Urban Institute in Washington D.C., is the first of its kind. Connecticut was the first state in the nation to compile a complete database of zoning regulations for each municipality and hamlet, according to study co-author Lydia Lo.

“The only two that are fully complete are Connecticut and Montana,” Lo said. “We leveraged the Connecticut Zoning Atlas data because it's the first complete data set, not necessarily because there's anything specifically within Connecticut that we were super excited about studying. But, it is a really great state that is facing a lot of severe housing affordability challenges.”

The database, established by the local nonprofit Desegregate Connecticut, is being replicated on a larger scale for other states in the National Zoning Atlas.

The study found that municipalities in Connecticut with more single-family zoning tend to have more white residents. The people who live in those communities also have higher education and larger incomes compared to renters. Houses in these communities cost roughly $100,000 more than houses in communities with more apartments.

“There's only 2% of Connecticut's land that is zoned for developments of four or more units,” Lo said. “And that's, it's a tiny share, and there are jurisdictions that have a higher share of their land dedicated to that, and many jurisdictions that have significantly lower levels.”

The study analyzed three geographic categories. They included the state’s eight largest cities, suburbs and towns, and rural areas.

Large cities were defined as those with more than 70,000 residents reported in the 2020 census. Those cities include Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury.

“Some cities, such as Hartford and New Haven, are relatively welcoming to the construction of apartment buildings, while others, such as Norwalk and Stamford, make it all but impossible in most neighborhoods,” the report read.

Districts zoned for single-family homes in those cities were just shy of 50 percent white. Areas zoned for buildings with four or more units are about a quarter white.

“This concentration of multifamily housing in central cities is problematic and could be restricting the amount of upward social mobility that families are able to experience in Connecticut,” Lo said.

More than 85% of the land in communities where housing values are in the top 20% in the state is restricted to single-family housing development.

The study, while not making assertions or recommendations about zoning laws, should be concerning, co-author Yonah Freemark said.

“What we find pretty clearly is that single-family zoning in Connecticut is associated with higher levels of income, higher home values, and much more concentration of people who are white,” Freemark said. “This, to my mind, suggests that there is some use of zoning as a tool to exclude people with lower incomes and who are not white from large sections of cities, towns and suburbs throughout Connecticut. This should raise concerns about whether this public policy is enforcing inequitable outcomes.”

Average home values were substantially lower in areas zoned for buildings with four or more units than areas zoned for single-family homes. In cities, the difference is roughly $200,000 versus $350,000.

Generally, home values are lowest in big cities and higher in suburban and rural areas.

The study and its authors make no claims about the legality of local zoning regulations. However, it makes clear the impact such regulations have on residents.

“Our research offers clear evidence of the importance of better understanding land-use rules throughout the United States,” the study read. “These findings help further our understanding about who lives in districts with more restrictive, single-family zoning and points toward new opportunities for research in this field.”

Abigail is Connecticut Public's housing reporter, covering statewide housing developments and issues, with an emphasis on Fairfield County communities. She received her master's from Columbia University in 2020 and graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2019. Abigail previously covered statewide transportation and the city of Norwalk for Hearst Connecticut Media. She loves all things Disney and cats.

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