Hudspeth: After listening to over a day of testimony

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Having listened to over 24 hours of testimony last month in our state legislature’s hearings on zoning and affordable housing, I’ve learned much about concerns on both sides of the aisle. Everyone is asserting a desire to address affordable housing, and the present affordable-housing-focused state legislation (Section 8-30g), while certainly advanced for its time when passed decades ago, clearly lacks sufficient teeth to get the job done.

The need to expand affordable housing was brought into sharp focus by Richard Rothstein’s seminal 2017 book, “The Color of Law.” It documents in horrific specifics the vast and pervasive role of our government at all levels and across all states, including our own, in imposing by law explicit, brazen and demeaning racial segregation of Blacks in American society, with segregation in housing extending to segregation in schools given school districts’ delineation by local municipality.

Extending over a century, this de jure segregation has been carried out under both Republican and Democratic administrations: from President Harding’s encouragement of local adoption of racially restrictive zoning in the 1920s, to FDR’s New Deal and World War II government-constructed housing on explicitly racially restricted lines, to post-war Federal Housing Administration (F.H.A.) and V.A. strictly enforced red-lining policies for their housing loans for a full generation up to the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It is undeniable that responsibility is very widely shared, with de jure segregation’s destructive impact extending to this very day. Denial of housing opportunity has meant denial of families’ wealth accumulation. Likewise, post-war restrictions on the G.I. Bill’s educational benefits denied Blacks then -- and limitations on access to high achieving elementary and secondary school districts continue to deny -- educational opportunities so highly correlated with earning potential.

So the key question is how to rectify this longstanding injustice. The very understandable reaction is to respond in force: attempting radical transformation through broad new state zoning-regulatory measures imposed on municipalities. But does that strategy present the best way forward, offering the greatest likelihood of overcoming so much deplorable government action over so many years?

I submit that it does not. While serious consequences for non-compliance with a legislatively set goal for non-age-restricted affordable housing in each municipality (over a very small population size) is crucial, seeking to do so through pervasive state-level revamping of zoning laws is unlikely to be productive. Instead, it creates intense resistance that only serves to slow progress and assure that a significant portion of our populace believes itself reconfirmed in sad intransigence to absolutely necessary changes in segregation outcomes extending over generations.

Ironically, Wilton’s compliance with Section 8-30g has been excellent over many years -- though 70% of Connecticut municipalities have not met the section’s 10% goal. Compliance with that goal actually makes very good developmental sense for towns since seeking to attract young people to grow the local economy doesn’t work if one doesn’t have housing they can afford.

The best way forward statewide in my view is this: Have new legislation embrace a very specific non-age restricted affordable housing goal with strong zoning-focused consequences to assure municipal compliance with that goal if the municipality itself doesn’t meet the goal in a reasonable time.

The teeth in this legislative proposal is this: If a municipality doesn’t achieve the lesser of either the “ultimate goal” on the percentage of affordable housing within its borders (e.g., 10%) or the “intermediate goals” towards achieving that ultimate goal for those municipalities currently below the ultimate goal (within the time limit provided for each intermediate goal), the state can step in to take over that municipality’s zoning and land use regulation to the extent, and only the extent, necessary to enable the municipality to meet the next specific intermediate goal.

The end result for complying municipalities is that nothing changes in terms of the municipality’s full control over local zoning regulation. For those municipalities that don’t comply, the state steps in for the limited purpose of bringing about that compliance. That’s a strong stick, but the corresponding very attractive carrot is, of course, that if the municipality achieves the goal, there will be no state intrusion upon its zoning regulation.

The legislature has wide latitude to make wholesale changes to bills even after they’re voted out of committee. In the spirit of keeping legislation in this area concise and straightforward, I’ve prepared a two-page bill incorporating the above that I’ve shared with relevant state legislative committee heads and other government officials.

Affordable housing expansion statewide needs addressing urgently, and now is the time to act.