Last week was a contentious moment in recent Connecticut history. To have suburban and urban officials point fingers at one another about housing policies was melodramatic. And since this is the age of COVID, the General Assembly held online hearings for hours as local media covered affordable housing as a social justice issue.
To understand Connecticut’s community development uniqueness, we need to recognize that our state relishes home rule – or local governance autonomy. Connecticut did away with county government in the 1960s and limited economic development connectivity across town lines.
It’s also no secret that Connecticut relied significantly on de facto or invisible segregation when it comes to localized zoning, planning, community development and public school policy. Just look at your own neighborhood and school district and it’s easy to see how divided we remain even in the 21st century.
Zoning laws and planning strategies help reinforce some of this racial, but also class, division. Historically, real estate agents and brokers often steered families into defined neighborhoods and banks redlined or guaranteed mortgages in specific communities especially before the practices were made illegal in the early 1970s. In fact, the real estate industry’s practice in West Hartford and Bloomfield is a textbook case study.
Yet this week, various officials politicized race in our divided urban-suburban areas. While many minorities are poorer than many whites, some minorities are middle class. And many whites – but not all – are wealthier. There is a wealth gap in Connecticut but race is not class. But one could hardly tell after recent debate among Connecticut’s mayors and suburban state lawmakers as housing affordability appeared to be more a racial concern than a class issue.
In an added plot twist, it took a white New Canaan native son and current New Haven mayor to tell Fairfield County officials how racially divided Connecticut remains. It also took a couple of wealthy minority state lawmakers to remind the mayor that Fairfield County is a hyper-home rule place.
Unfortunately, race has been used too often as a reason for multifamily housing and zoning reform practices especially in Connecticut’s suburbs. And many officials conflate race with class.
Will urban Democratic officials recognize how they politicize race in housing policy? Can suburban Republican politicians understand that their communities are significantly middle class for a reason? Considering our current hyper-partisan era, officials are at a public policy impasse leaving housing policy to remain an ongoing saga.
Instead of following the finger-pointing then, pay special attention to how the state government may play an increasing role in housing affordability policies. Since Connecticut does not have county or regional governance particularly in economic development matters, housing will remain a third-rail issue.
As someone who researches and teaches economic development, I have observed and written about various tri-state area initiatives. One such housing approach state lawmakers is considering would be development along existing or future public transit routes. Transit Oriented Development has been successful in nearby states and gained interest among retirees and younger residents. I’ll offer in a future column this initiative along with other policies that could help our cities flourish and class-diversify our suburbs.
Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the associated dean of the School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He was on New Haven’s City Plan Commission and is a frequent contributor on WNPR.