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Why do so many CT residents struggle to find housing? One reason: Exclusionary zoning

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As Shanay Fulton and one of her sons walked up to a house in Middletown, she had a surprise in store.

“Guess what?” Fulton asked Joshua. “I bought this house!”

His eyes lit up.

“Let’s go!” he said.

Joshua, 11 years old at the time, explored the kitchen and flipped on light switches.

Shanay Fulton and her son Joshua dance and sing in their new home, purchased after years of housing insecurity.
Provided
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Shanay Fulton
Shanay Fulton and her son Joshua dance and sing in their new home, purchased after years of housing insecurity.

“We got a house!” mother and son sang.

After years of being without a home, they finally have a place of their own.

But getting to this moment was a struggle.

"Trying to find affordable housing was so interesting,” Fulton said.

Finding housing in Connecticut has long been a challenge. And it’s only getting more challenging.

The state’s housing vacancy rate is about half the national average. The state lacks about 92,000 affordable housing units. A recent report declared that Connecticut is the worst state in the U.S. for renters.

Experts have been sounding the alarm on the state’s affordable housing crisis for years. They say the state’s lack of supply is due in large part to exclusionary zoning — stringent zoning rules that make it difficult to build.

Most types of housing are illegal across the majority of the state, said Anika Singh Lemar, a law professor at Yale Law School who studies housing issues. About 90% of Connecticut is zoned for single-family housing.

That approach has led to segregation across Connecticut. A recent housing report commissioned by the state declared that "segregation in the state of Connecticut is high."

In Connecticut, 91% of housing is zoned to allow construction of single family homes as of right while only about 2% are zoned for homes built for 4 or more families. "As of right" means that a unit can be built without first being going through an approval process by the town's zoning body, a process that can potentially be long, expensive, and is often met with public resistance.
Fighting For Home
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National Zoning Atlas
In Connecticut, 91% of housing is zoned to allow construction of single-family homes "as of right," while only about 2% are zoned for homes built for four or more families. "As of right" means a unit can be built without first going through an approval process by the town's zoning body, a process that can potentially be long, expensive and is often met with public resistance.

In many towns across Connecticut, when it comes to affordable housing or apartments or other multi-family housing, residents and public officials often have the mentality of “not in my backyard.” And when housing developments are proposed, residents often sound off before their town’s planning and zoning commission, which plays a key role in deciding what gets built.

"Once somebody who's trying to build housing is forced to go through some kind of approvals process, you kind of open the door to all kinds of complaints,” Singh Lemar said. “More often than not, you see things that are pretty unreasonable.”

Here’s a sampling of comments from residents at recent planning and zoning public hearings across the state:

In Norwalk: "I am most definitely and vociferously against the proposal to downgrade single-family housing zones to multi-family zones."

In Danbury: “If the zoning regulations are amended ... crime will go up, loitering and littering will increase.”

In Woodbridge: “People don't want it; why don't you understand that we don't want it as a community."

In Mansfield: "Is this what you had in mind? Stacking one high density development after another?”

Residents often cite the same buzz words for their opposition to affordable housing. Experts say that those words are often a disguise for other concerns.

Tim Hollister, a prominent housing attorney, explains one popular term: character.

"A regulation that says you may deny a zoning application based on the character of the community,” he said. “The [state] legislature has now banned that because the word ‘character’ is ... a dog whistle, sometimes for other things ... that are not proper purposes of zoning."

Anika Singh Lemar, a Clinical Professor of Law at the Yale Law School.
Tyler Russell
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Connecticut Public
Anika Singh Lemar is a clinical professor of law at the Yale Law School.

Singh Lemar points to other examples.

"Sometimes you will hear things that are basically classism,” she said. “[They say] so it's going to be loud, it's going to be crowded. This apartment building has balconies; what if people have parties late at night? Local public infrastructure is going to be overrun; this apartment building's near a park, the park's going to be too crowded."

The case of the spotted salamander

A law in Connecticut is designed to counter exclusionary zoning. The 8-30g law says that a building proposal that includes affordable units should be approved in towns that do not meet affordable housing thresholds – where affordable housing is less than 10% of a town’s housing stock. Many towns in Connecticut don’t meet that threshold. Meanwhile, advocates say having a 10% minimum just isn’t enough.

These are the towns that were meeting the 8-30G benchmark for having at least 10% of their housing being affordable in 2021, according to the Connecticut Department of Housing.
Fighting for Home
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Connecticut Department of Housing
These are the towns in Connecticut that were meeting the 8-30g benchmark for having at least 10% of their housing being affordable in 2021, according to the Connecticut Department of Housing.

There are exceptions around the 8-30g law, though: if a town can prove there’s a health or safety issue.

About 20 years ago, in Fairfield County, the town of Wilton referenced the migration path of spotted salamanders to reject a development. Hollister took that case to the state Supreme Court and won.

"They said: You can't stop residential development because the salamander travels 800 feet from its birthplace on dry land and mark that off as unavailable for residential housing,” Hollister said.

Some observers say lawsuits can play a significant role in shaping the state’s housing policy. Others point to the need to remove bureaucratic barriers to make it easier to build housing.

"Until we start to remove some of those regulatory burdens, all the incentives in the world are not going to result in the kind of outcomes I think we need to address the housing crisis,” said State Rep. Jason Rojas, the House Majority Leader and a Democrat who represents East Harford and Manchester.

A solution in the works: Fair Share

In Connecticut, many point to a proposed program, Fair Share, as a way to develop more housing. Fair Share would identify a certain amount of affordable housing for each municipality to adopt. It’s a plan that’s modeled after a similar program in New Jersey. The legislation has stalled in Connecticut’s legislature, although some lawmakers are hopeful it’ll be considered in the 2025 session.

Opponents include the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which represents towns and cities. The group says it has “serious concerns” about the legislation, calling it “impractical” and saying that it imposes “harsh penalties.”

“The bill would create an alternative punitive process to assess and implement the state-wide need for affordable housing and imposes a top down policy onto the backs of local governments,” the group said in testimony submitted to state lawmakers in 2023.

The opt in nature of most housing programs in Connecticut have concentrated residents in need of housing support in those towns that have opted in. The goal of a mandatory program like Fair Share would be to distribute the burden of supporting those in need more evenly across the state.
Ryan Caron King
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Connecticut Public
The opt-in nature of most housing programs in Connecticut have concentrated residents in need of housing support in those towns that have opted in. The goal of a mandatory program like Fair Share would be to distribute the burden of supporting those in need more evenly across the state.

Opponents also say the policy goes against the idea of local control, where towns create regulations. But that’s a myth, said Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, who's helping push for Fair Share in Connecticut.

"One of the most astounding myths that sprung up around Fair Share this session was the notion that it took local control in zoning away from towns,” Boggs said.

In the 1920s, Connecticut gave its municipalities the authority to zone.

Towns are supposed to allow zoning for multifamily housing and promote diversity in housing, including housing for low- and middle-income households.

"Clearly, they're not doing it,” Boggs said. "They need some assistance and that ... would be provided in the form of Fair Share."

She points to success in New Jersey, which she said has “produced an astounding number of housing units," especially in recent years. Its program came about via a lawsuit and required all New Jersey municipalities to provide their “fair share” of affordable housing in their region.

Boggs said her group works with people every day who experience housing insecurity.

"There's so much we can do if we all play a role in this, if we all contribute in the sense of fair share, we can get this done and we can be a stronger Connecticut,” Boggs said.

Taking action – and having courage

Back in Middletown, Fulton reflected on her journey to having her own home.

Fulton and her sons were homeless after she endured years of domestic abuse. They lived in a homeless shelter.

She struggled through ups and downs trying to secure housing. Just as she’d cobble together three or four jobs to save up for an apartment, aid would be revoked because she earned too much money.

She had a housing voucher, but many places wouldn’t accept them. Fulton’s voucher wasn’t enough to cover the entire rent in Middletown.

After a series of false starts, she finally closed on the house. When her offer was accepted, her realtor called her.

"Immediately, I broke down,” Fulton recalled. “When she told me my offer was approved, I was like: ‘Are you serious? Oh my God.’”

She moved in three years ago. Getting her own place was the “greatest feeling,” she said.

“For me to finally give them more space and we can call this home,” Fulton said.

But Fulton didn't just find a house; she decided to take action: She was elected to the city’s zoning commission.

Shanay Fulton became a member of the Middletown Zoning Commission after struggling to find affordable housing in the town for herself and her two sons
Tyler Russell
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Connecticut Public
Shanay Fulton became a member of the Middletown Zoning Commission after struggling to find affordable housing in the town for herself and her two sons.

She was interested in housing, business development and economic development. And she realized that zoning is a key component.

“I'll be perfectly honest: I'm the only person of color [on the zoning commission] and I've been the only person of color since I was first elected in 2019,” she said. “I don't think that a lot of people, especially a lot of people of color, understand what zoning really is. They don't realize it's one of the most important commissions in the community.”

Fulton suggests people show up to zoning meetings – not to oppose housing, but to support it. She also wants more people like her in the room.

“I would love to see more people of color come out to these things,” Fulton said. “Because then when something comes out, they're like, ‘Well, I don't like it.’ But you didn't come out to either be for it or against it to give us your opinion and how it could impact you overall.”

Getting involved in local politics is one piece to addressing affordable housing. Passing legislative reforms is another. Ultimately, it will take a mindset change, said Rojas, the House Majority leader.

"It's a question of at what point do we just need that courage?” he said. “Because that courage has been shown over the course of history ... the courage to do what was right.”

Learn more

This story is part of a Connecticut Public documentary focused on housing issues in the state. “Fighting For Home: How Housing Policy Keeps Connecticut Segregated” premieres June 27 at 8 p.m. on CPTV.

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