A Window into the Crafting of DeSegregate CT State Zoning Legislation

This article has been updated to clarify that *accessory apartments have been allowed in Greenwich since the 1980s, though **not in the R6 zone, which is already zoned two-family as of right. Still there are only about 100 of these units in town.

At an affordable housing forum hosted by State Rep Kimberly Fiorello (R-149) and State Senator Tony Hwang (R-28) on Jan 19, hosts and panelists said new statewide zoning legislation would cede local zoning control to the State, and possibly might have adverse impacts to towns.

The legislation could be introduced as early as Monday.

The elephant in the room was DeSegregate CT, a coalition founded by Sara Bronin that is crafting state legislation with the goal of increasing affordable housing in towns across the state, and in turn decreasing segregation.

Ms Bronin, who has an impressive CV – she is an architect, land use attorney and law professor – is also a preservationist, and only recently stepped down from her role of chair of Preservation CT.

Also, she served on Hartford’s P&Z commission from 2013 until this past summer.

“We’re not touching large lot zoning – at least not at this point. We’re not tackling some of the bigger things. We’re actually going for the things that are consensus, but high impact at low cost to towns.”

Sara Bronin, DeSegregate CT

The point of view of DeSegregate CT was absent during the Jan 19 town hall forum, but Jan 21 Bronin was the featured speaker on a Zoom talk titled “Making Urbanism Antiracist,” organized by YIMBY Action, a group of inclusive housing advocates.

Bronin said her group came to life in June, which was soon after George Floyd’s death prompted the #BlackLivesMatter movement and increased awareness across the country of systemic racism.

DeSegregate CT now has 55 organizational members.

“The truth is that Connecticut is an extremely segregated state. Not everybody believes that in Connecticut. So when some communities, some people hear desegregate, they think oh, gosh, it means, you know, crazy radicals are going to try to overrun my neighborhood with, you know, ‘those people.’”

Sara Bronin, DeSegregate CT

“What we’re proposing this year is really a package of reforms that won’t by themselves magically desegregate Connecticut,” Bronin said. Rather, she talked about the importance of increasing opportunities.

She said the effort had input from landscape architects, zoning enforcement officers and planners across the state

“The association of zoning enforcement officers  have gone through our draft bills and said, ‘This will work, this will work.’ This is how a zoning officer would read this.”

“It’s been really heartening that our professionals have come together,” she added. “We’ve come to what we’re doing with taking everybody in and saying this is our problem.”

Bronin, whose husband Luke is the Mayor of Hartford, said she lived in the Capital’s downtown.

Hartford has a population of 125,000. Home ownership in the city is as low as 11% in some neighborhoods.

“Living in a city like Hartford, which is a very low income city, which is a 15% white city nestled in a sea of wealthy suburban towns in one of the wealthiest regions in the country,” she said. “The differences here, depending on your zip code, dictate your health outcomes, educational opportunities, your economic opportunities and your chance for inter-generational wealth.”

Community Character

“Character is a terrible word,” Bronin said, when asked about the term when it is used by zoning commissions.

“The reason the three preservation organizations in the state – Preservation Connecticut, Connecticut Main Street center and Connecticut Preservation Action –  signed on to our language is because they wanted it to be known that character is not going to be used in their name to inflict racist outcomes on communities.”

“We have a case in a suburb, it’s in the court system, I won’t name it,” Bronin said. “The lawsuit is partly based on the fact that two of the commissioners, in the last few months, held a meeting where they essentially mocked an immigrant and his lawyer who said this person fears for his life because of zoning violations he’s brought before you.  The commissioners joked about deporting him. That was their joke. You can’t legislate for that.”

Housing on Main Streets

Bronin said a key part of her group’s proposal was “Main Street Zoning,” which would call for towns to fast track two- to four-family housing, making it “as of right.”

“As of right” means proposals could be approved by staff without public hearings.

There would be no minimum parking requirements, within a quarter mile of a “main street” in towns with over 7,500 people or with “concentrated development” as defined by the Census.

Bronin was asked whether “Main Street Zoning” might result in less affordable housing, and lead to both gentrification and more expensive housing. The cost of land in Greenwich is possibly the highest in the state.

In response, Bronin used the example of housing prices in NYC which have declined during the pandemic.

“It’s really true, the more supply you have, the lower the price will be,” she said.

Transit Oriented Development

According to the DeSegregate CT website, their proposal would bring housing with a minimum of 4 units to 50% of the lot area within 1/2 mile of fixed transit stations.

These would include commuter rail stations, bus rapid transit (not bus stops) and ferry terminals. These could be live-work units, mixed-use developments, or straight-up multifamily housing.

“Of course, some desirable density around train stations might not be affordable to everybody,” Bronin said. “(That’s why) one of the reasons we’ve put in our proposal a 10% affordability requirement for any building of 10 units. So if a town chooses to, and we hope they will, zone for a 10+ unit housing, every unit above 10 would have to be affordable.”

Bronin noted that Connecticut has no statewide rules on accessory dwelling units.

“We’re big believers in creating more housing, period.  More housing opportunities, dividing the large houses we have into accessory dwelling reasons for environmental reasons, but also for opportunity reasons, and so on. We’re big believers in supply.”

Sara Bronin, DeSegregate CT

At Fiorello and Hwang’s town hall forum, panelist Francis Pickering director of WestCOG, said the proposed legislation was flawed in assuming that if developers could build multi family housing that it would increase affordable housing.

“Most Americans’ primary source of savings is their home equity,” he said. adding that state zoning legislation would “meddle” with that process.

“Given how critical home equity is in our society, we have to proceed delicately and not do things that could bankrupt one family and unduly enrich another family,” he added.

“Often developers find the greatest profit margin in the most expensive product,” Pickering added.

Also, during the Jan 19 town hall forum, Greenwich’s P&Z chair Margarita Alban said here in Greenwich, the commission had already made strides to remove barriers to creating accessory units.

*In fact, in Greenwich accessory apartments have been allowed since the mid 1980s, and recently a text amendment allowed them to be larger. Still there are only 100 of these units in town.

Last September the commission approved an amendment to encourage elderly and affordable accessory apartments.

Accessory apartments are not allowed in the R6 zone since two-family homes are already “as of right.”

The town also created an affordable housing task force and P&Z is collaborating with the housing authority.

The commission is also working to revise its 6-110 workforce housing regulation. It recently held a workshop attended by land use attorneys and developers.

Meanwhile developers continue to propose 8-30g developments. This is the state 8-30g affordable housing statute that waives local zoning regulations, including parking requirements, in order to achieve a percentage of affordable units in a proposed development. The statute applies to any Connecticut town that does not yet have at least 10% of its housing deemed affordable. And units owned/rented to employees of private schools, country clubs and Greenwich Hospital don’t count. They are not advertised on the open market.

The 8-30g applications will continue to be submitted in parallel to statewide zoning regulations if they are implemented.

Two 8-30g developments currently under consideration in Greenwich are 4 Orchard Street in Cos Cob and 28 Hollow Wood in Pemberwick.

The accusation of racism always stings.

While Bronin singled out New Canaan for their 4-acre zoning, their First Selectman said last week at the town hall forum that his town had instituted a fee to developers for a trust fund for affordable housing.

Darien and Westport both have inclusionary zoning, and both Ridgefield and New Canaan are in the process of drafting inclusionary zoning language.

Other panelists at Fiorello’s town hall argued there were better conversations to be had about racial justice and social equity.

Jayme Stevenson, First Selectman of Darien, said it was time for a conversation on improving the economy, generating jobs and improving education.

Cars and Parking Requirements

Bronin talked about how existing land use laws were car-centric and parking requirements resulted in higher housing prices.

The DeSegregate CT platform proposes to reduce parking requirements, which Bronin said ties people to their cars.

“Cars are a scourge on modern society,” she said, adding that parking requirements make housing more expensive and in turn force people to be in cars in order to commute to work. “It becomes this self perpetuating cycle.”

She said 4-acre zoning, the type found in New Canaan and Greenwich, represented a lifestyle that has lost popularity and given way to a preference for walkable downtown neighborhoods.

“That’s great and good for watershed protection,” she said of 4-acre zones. However, she noted, “Until the pandemic, a lot of that housing was not desirable. People from New York City have scooped it up, (but) it’s not the way people want to live any more.”

“We’re not touching large lot zoning – at least not at this point,” she said.

She said while on Hartford’s P&Z commission, the last three years of which she served as chair, they “pulled off the Bandaid,” and eliminated parking requirements city wide.

“We hope it is a radical move that will turn the city around. We’re not advocating (that) in DeSegregate CT,” she said. “We’re just asking for communities to stop their parking mandates that are more than one space for a studio or one bedroom.”

“Whether it’s a wealthy town, it’s a rural town, an urban town. There’s not a good case that’s made for the arbitrary parking requirement,” she continued. “We have some of the wealthiest towns in Connecticut requiring 3 parking spaces for a studio apartment. What does that do to the cost of the apartment or the building as a whole? Of course it makes it higher, keeps people out and prevents that development from ever actually happening…”

** While GFP couldn’t find a town that requires 3 parking spaces for a studio apartment, here in Greenwich, in the R6 zone, where two-family is allowed “as of right,” adding an accessory apartment to a single family home makes it technically a two-family home and subjects it to a parking formula requiring 1.5 spaces per bedroom. For a house with 5 bedrooms, just to add an accessory unit, a total of 8 parking spaces would be required.

Accessory Dwelling UnitsADUs

In addition to reducing parking requirements, DeSegregate CT’s platform includes a push to add accessory dwelling units (ADUs). They note that most of Connecticut’s towns already allow accessory dwelling units, but their goal is to make it much easier.

Bronin said zoning is neither preordained nor organic.

“They (towns) think it’s handed down from God,” she said. “Changing it is not going to result in bad places, crime and school overcrowding.”

She said zoning in Connecticut towns came about during periods of time when communities thought they should exclude certain groups of people, and tightened over time.

“This isn’t about local control,” she said, adding it was more about homeowners being able to carve out an accessory dwelling unit in their single family home.

The coalition submitted that because of their size, accessory dwelling units were “naturally affordable.”

Further, they say accessory dwelling units are neatly tucked into existing single-family housing, and neither alter the streetscape nor add to sprawl.

Model Codes, aka “Form Based Codes”

Another pillar of DeSegregate CT’s platform is to include a model codes, or “form based codes” developed at the state level.

Bronin said when she served on the P&Z commission, Hartford switched to a form based code.

“We threw out the old code entirely and adopted a new code in one night,” she said. “The consultant said she’d never seen that before. But the reason we were able to do that…. is because first of all we’re all about robust consensus building, we met with neighborhood leaders again and again about zoning.”

Now, in the City of Hartford, all housing is ‘as of right,’ which means it doesn’t go through the public hearing process, which can be lengthy and expensive for applicants.

She said Catherine Einstein studied many P&Z decision making meetings with regard to zoning in Massachusetts, and found a lot about the nature of decision makers and as well as the people who attended the meetings.

“She took their zip codes and was able to extrapolate on the basis of race, age, and gender and found that largely the decision makers and commentators were white men in their 50s or older,” Bronin said.

Bronin said after changing to a form based code, Hartford received a Best Zoning Code award from the Form Based Codes Institute and Smart Growth America.

“The main benefit of a form based code is that it has set out the rules in advance. It has a lot of community engagement in the development of the code, but after you’ve done it, somebody can look at the code and say, ‘This is what’s required. I’m going to do that.’ There might be a little negotiating with staff, but it can be approved by staff. So, for those places that see housing challenges, housing supply that may be desperately needed, form based codes are really important.”

The codes would be a free tool for towns to use. The DeSegregate CT website notes that often towns don’t have the funds or expertise to update their codes, and model codes give them a place to start at no cost.

The morning after the Fiorello-Hwang forum, Greenwich Town Planner Katie DeLuca reflected on the proposal during a debrief on WGCH.

DeLuca said the new proposal replaces an original proposal she described as “quite extreme.”

“It really took away almost all local control,” she said. “That was obviously met with just extreme opposition.”

“This (version of the legislation) is still troubling to a lot of people,” she said. “It’s questionable as to whether something like that would work. And, number two, I think it does take away from local control. The biggest issue we’ve had with this group is their research.”

DeLuca said DeSegregate CT had misrepresented the social and economic makeup of the town.

“It’s just easy to say Greenwich is nothing but rich people,” she said. “It’s a nice thing to say, but actually it’s not quite accurate.”

DeLuca said what Fairfield County has done is quite innovate and successful in terms of providing different housing options.

“We would like to continue our efforts,” DeLuca added. “More importantly I think we’d like to work with them. There seems to be quite a feeling of unwillingness on their part to have conversations and do this together. That’s added to this level of animosity where there’s the feeling we’re being told what to do.”

“Someone described it best by saying, ‘We’re going to eat our vegetables anyway.'”

See also:

Forum on Affordable Housing Focuses on Local Control, Property Rights and Unintended Consequences of Future State Legislation

Jan 21, 2021

Camillo, Residents Testify against Cos Cob 8-30g; Civil Rights Attorney Reminds P&Z of “Duties to create affordable housing opportunities”

Jan 8, 2021

P&Z Considers 21-Unit 8-30g Development on Hollow Wood in Flood Zone

Jan 6, 2021

Greenwich P&Z Watch: DeSegregate CT Seeks to Make Single Family Zoning a Thing of the Past

October 20, 2020

P&Z Approves Text Amendment to Encourage Elderly, Affordable Accessory Apartments

Sept, 2020

P&Z Approves Legal Settlement for 30 Unit Building to Replace Homes on Milbank

Nov, 2019

Housing Authority Seeks Major Redevelopment at Quarry Knoll: 5 Buildings, Up to 225 Units Sept 13, 2019