Is your suburb a monotonous, unwalkable, racially segregated misery pit? Is your city an inescapable concentration of poverty and crime, squeezed from all sides by the surrounding towns? Blame America’s bizarrely strict and exclusionary zoning laws.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently marked the 50th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 by promoting legislation, HB 5045, which includes a few modest reforms of the zoning system, which is largely controlled by individual towns. Among other things, the bill would require towns to demonstrate compliance with new standards for providing more affordable housing if they want to continue to get state funding.
This is good! Diversifying the housing stock in a community is worthwhile, and we should pursue that. But this bill won’t fix the major problem: our zoning laws are broken. They desperately need to either be reformed or scrapped altogether.
American zoning and land use policies are an anomaly. Most other countries have detailed land use regulations of one kind or another, but ours are both much more exclusionary than just about all of them. What that means is that zones in most American communities have only a single potential use.
For example, I’m sitting in what my town has designated a “R-33” zone. That means pretty much all that can be built in my neighborhood is single-family detached houses with a minimum lot size of 33,000 square feet. In short: a 1950s-era suburban development. Nearby neighborhoods require even larger lots.
In Germany, by contrast, a neighborhood like mine would be an “exclusively residential” district, as defined by federal law, but it would allow both single- and multi-family homes as well as smaller shops, hotels, and civic buildings. Other residential districts would also allow larger shops, restaurants, and other uses. Every single zone is what we’d call “mixed use.” The point is to create not just housing but everything people might need close by, instead of having to get in a car and drive for miles just to get groceries.
Why is the United States this way? There are many reasons why our zoning system evolved to be so exclusionary, but they all come back to that same old demon that underpins just about everything else in this country: institutional racism, segregation, and white supremacy.
Zoning started happening in cities at about the same time black families began migrating out of the South, and exclusionary zoning picked up steam after the World War II, when the suburbs saw rapid growth. This was the era of “redlining,” in which racial minorities were kept out of white neighborhoods through discriminatory lending.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 helped curb some of the worst excesses of the redlining era — but ever more stringent zoning rules in the suburbs produced pretty much the same outcome: mostly-white communities. Instead of explicitly excluding black families, exclusionary zoning made it nearly impossible for them to afford suburban housing or to effectively get around once they were there.
That also means that a city like Hartford is being squeezed by the zoning regulations of the surrounding towns, which allow for far fewer multi-family homes, apartments, and affordable housing options. Zoning laws also keep out things middle class white families would rather pretend don’t exist, like group homes, substance abuse clinics, and shelters.
That’s how we ended up with so many neighborhoods that lack density, vitality, diversity, and social justice. Only in the densest urban areas can we find a variety of housing types, shops, industry, restaurants, and social services all in the same area.
Unfortunately, plenty of towns are starting to belatedly realize that the walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods they’ve explicitly zoned out are exactly what’s wanted by the young residents they’re so desperate to keep.
But what we really need is a wholesale reform of zoning in this country. We need towns, suburbs especially, to unclench their fists and allow for inclusive land use. We need to redesign suburbs to make them denser and more sustainable: think sort of like West Hartford’s Blue Back Square, but less painfully upscale.
The legislature should pass this bill, but only as a first step toward real zoning reform. The outcome could be utterly transformative, and be just what our region needs to survive and thrive.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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