Methinks it was Winston Churchill who first coined the phrase, later popularized by President Clinton’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
President Roosevelt used the Great Depression as a vehicle for launching the New Deal. LBJ used the violence against the late John Lewis and others on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to usher a voting rights bill through Congress. George W. Bush used 9/11 to get the dreadful Patriot Act passed. And yes, then-Gov. Dannel Malloy and his allies in the General Assembly seized on the Newtown massacre in order to accomplish a bipartisan overhaul of Connecticut’s gun laws.
More recently, Gov. Ned Lamont and lawmakers took advantage of racial unrest, caused most recently by the brutal death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis cop, to enact a sweeping police reform bill.
Now progressives are going a step farther and seizing on Floyd’s death and the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement to tackle what they call “exclusionary zoning.” Who would have thought zoning would be hot? At every journalism conference I have attended over the years, instructors always tell us not to put the word “zoning” into a headline. Use that wonky word as a marker and no one will read your story.
New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker must have realized that, because in a recent op-ed, he lured readers into his piece by proclaiming “Let’s tax Connecticut’s segregation.” Of course, you cannot actually tax segregation. What Elicker proposes is to place a state tax on towns with zoning codes that he says contribute to segregated communities.
It is a serious issue and Elicker’s intentions are surely honorable. Connecticut is indeed one of the most racially segregated states in the nation, and with an unacceptably high achievement gap in its public schools. And indeed, a disproportionately high percentage of the have-nots live in the state’s largest cities, though smaller, whiter municipalities like Ansonia, North Canaan, Willimantic and Plainfield are also among the poorest.
To make his point about towns that have exclusionary zoning, a practice which makes it difficult to build affordable housing and multifamily units, Elicker seized on wealthy Darien and used it as his primary example, though in an interview on WTNH‘s “Capitol Report,” he insisted with a straight face, “I’m not picking on Darien.”
There’s a reason Democrat Elicker called out Darien so loudly. Of all the state’s wealthy Gold Coast towns, Darien is perhaps the least sympathetic. At more than 40% of the town’s registered voters, Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost 2-1. The town has a GOP-controlled board of selectmen and a high-profile Republican first selectman who ran two years ago for lieutenant governor. Lily-white Darien also has a history of racism and anti-Semitism dating back to the 1930s and ‘40s, but by most accounts has made great strides since those days.
Elicker reasons that “Black residents are overwhelmingly concentrated in our cities, where they pay the highest tax rates and send their children to the lowest-performing school districts,” while “wealthy communities … continue to enjoy the lowest property tax rates.”
Comparing tax rates between municipalities is, for all practical purposes, meaningless. Wealthy Greenwich, for example, enjoys the lowest mill rate in the state. Does that mean Greenwichers pay low taxes for great schools? Of course not. The tax rate is rock bottom because the town assessor values the properties in Greenwich at a very high level.
My town of Salisbury has one of the very lowest mill rates in the state for precisely the same reason. Take my home and put it in distressed Winsted, which has a far higher mill rate, and it would be assessed at less than half of what it is worth in Salisbury.
Elicker is correct when he says that few of these wealthy communities have met the state’s goal of 10% of the housing stock qualifying as affordable. His solution is for the state to impose an additional property tax on those towns that have not met the standard, with the funds to be distributed to the municipalities that have the greatest need.
“Here in New Haven, we could put those dollars towards finally ensuring that every child is supported, both in and out of the classroom, and finally make this a city where everyone can thrive,” Elicker said.
The problem, of course, is that there is no way to know whether those funds would improve student outcomes in the most needy cities because, as Elicker himself concedes, “housing is inextricably linked to educational outcomes.”
Jayme Stevenson, Darien’s first selectman, shot back at Elicker. While Darien currently has only between 3 and 4 percent of its housing stock classified as affordable, Stevenson said in an op-ed in the Darien Times that Elicker “wrongfully incriminates the Town of Darien and others in his article.”
“He is clearly unaware that Darien adopted inclusionary zoning regulations in 2009 that have been very useful in our mission to add affordable housing choice in our community,” Stevenson said. “Since 2000, of the 852 multi-family housing units constructed and approved for construction, 31.7% are affordable units.”
Stevenson also noted that, on the zoning-and-housing legislative fronts, there are many initiatives brewing in the Capitol, including: a ban on single-family zoning; the elimination of public hearings and special permits for multi-family housing applications; and striking the word “character” from local zoning laws.
I contacted all four members of the General Assembly who represent Darien in Hartford to ask them what they thought of Elicker’s proposal. There are three Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Terrie Wood, who was the only one who responded by my deadline.
“First, I find it racist and demeaning for him to make the statement that Black families need affordable housing to be able to live in Darien,” Wood said. “Second, I’m sure Black families do want lower taxes and better schools in their communities—as any family does—but further taxing and redistributing dollars from Darien will not fix those problems.”
Wood insisted that a system to steer dollars into Conencticut’s cities already exists and that wealthy towns send hundreds of million of dollars per year into Hartford that is then distributed to cities like New Haven.
In fact, a quick look at the top tax-paying towns in the state is revealing. Of the $7.73 billion the state took in from income taxes in 2017, the most recent year I could find, almost $700 million came from Greenwich, which has less than 2% of Connecticut’s population but is by far the largest source of income-tax revenue of any town in the state. With about one-third of Greenwich’s population, Darien nonetheless clocks in at number five, contributing more than $210 million.
“Mayor Elicker should be focused on how he can deliver solutions for his community rather than attacking others,” Wood added. “Policies that build up, not tear down, should be our goal.”
Affordable housing is an extremely complex subject and, if addressing it includes more state control of municipal zoning, then it is fraught with peril. I do agree that towns need to do more in the way of incentives, but Connecticut has a long tradition of local control. Heck, we haven’t even had county government since 1960.
Progressive Democrats who represent suburban communities will be hard-pressed to embrace some of these proposals and give the state more authority, in part because, as Republican state Rep. Gail Lavielle of Wilton has observed, “If this were to happen, those controlling local zoning would no longer be accountable to the residents of the towns they would be affecting.”
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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