Ever since I moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, folks back home like to ask me how my polo ponies are doing. It’s a joke, of course. In a place replete with private lanes, private clubs, and gracious-sounding enclaves like Belle Haven, my corner of town is lovingly referred to as “over by the Carvel,” because the ice cream shop, with its giant, dilapidated waffle-cone rooftop sign, is the closest landmark.
No, I’m not a billionaire, yet, nor am I training polo ponies. Still I’m always aware how lucky I am to have grabbed the bottom rung on what used to be called the property ladder (back when young people could realistically hold aspirations of purchasing a home one day). So, even during the alarming news year that was 2020, local headlines about an affordable housing organization, Desegregate CT, caught my eye last summer with scare quotes about making single-family housing illegal.
In November, I called Sara Bronin, who heads up Desegregate CT, to see what was up with that. Zoning and land use laws are Bronin’s life’s work; she’s a lawyer, a professor, an architect, a preservationist, and an urban planner. She is currently the chair of real property law at the University of Connecticut,, and formerly the planning and zoning chair in the town of Hartford, where she spearheaded zoning reforms that have won national recognition.
When we spoke, Bronin framed Desegregate CT’s mission in more moderate terms. “Our goal in Connecticut is to create more housing across the state, to create more diverse kinds of housing, and to ensure that the processes that we use to approve housing are fair,” she said. “We are not—and you know, we have never said that we are—trying to completely eliminate single-family housing. Actually, what we said is that we want for people to be able to have housing choices, and to create opportunities even for people who own their homes to create new housing within the existing architectural character of their communities.”
That sounds reasonable, as far as it goes, and would resonate with most of the locals I’ve talked to (although some might wrestle with an exasperating sense of having tried that before).
Architectural “character,” though, is a major flashpoint in the debate about Desegregate CT for a reason. Over the summer, State Senator Saud Anwar, then-chair of the Housing Committee, drafted LCO 3508: An Act Concerning Zoning and Affordable Housing, a bill that aimed to drastically reshape zoning laws throughout the state. The bill didn’t make it out of the short summer legislative session, but it’s expected to be reintroduced in the coming weeks.
Anwar’s bill, which Desegregate CT backed, would eliminate preserving the “character” of an area as a consideration in zoning decisions, on the basis that such language has long been used to enforce unspoken codes of racism and classism.
Bronin was careful to contextualize that assertion when we spoke in November. “From a diversity perspective, a racial and ethnic diversity perspective, Greenwich is better than most,” she said. (By “most,” she means most of the state; Connecticut skews whiter than the rest of the nation, but isn’t among the top 10 whitest states; and Greenwich is majority white, but with sizable Hispanic, Black, and Asian populations). “But racial diversity isn’t the only kind of diversity,” she reminded me. “There’s diversity in terms of household income, too.”
A broader way to frame the question might be: What can zoning do in the face of the kind of income inequality that currently exists in America?
The history of zoning is one of changing priorities. Building codes were introduced here to enforce fire safety; and then to separate housing from industrial uses, to clean up dirty cities, to give apartment dwellers fresh air and light.
Then, for many decades in America—and Desegregate CT’s advocates are right to remind us of this—zoning was employed covertly to enforce racism. As Bronin and others have observed, Greenwich expanded lot sizes in the mid-20th century to reduce crowding and density of housing, but maybe also to keep the “wrong people” out of wealthy white areas.
America has a lot of racial reckoning still to come. But the race rhetoric from Desegregate CT seems to rankle locally not because locals harbor delusions that Greenwich has zero work left to do on the social justice front. It’s more that race doesn’t provide the clearest lens through which to view the complex problem of affordable housing, either in Greenwich or in the broader context of the state of Connecticut.
Scuffles about affordability and population density take on a darkly comic tinge against the backdrop of local mansions, set on acres and acres of land, that seem designed for feudal lords. As I’ve noted before in this space, single-family housing is in short supply here in town even if you’re in a position to buy, unless your price range is somewhere considerably north of a million. Greenwich consistently ranks as one of the wealthiest towns in America. And needless to say, many renters are priced out of the area entirely. Median home price, median income, and placing trust in the wisdom of market forces take on a whole different meaning here.
Yet the town of Greenwich is in an earnest race to get to a state-mandated, 10% affordability target, not least because Greenwich planning and zoning meetings are often dominated by wrestling matches with two statutes intended to promote affordable housing. One, known as 8-30g, a state statute over three decades old, is arguably a relic of a time when faith in the free market was trendy. The other, the town’s 6-110 regulation, is meant to encourage workforce housing; Greenwich sought (and won) a 12-month moratorium on that statute, but recently held a workshop seeking feedback on an amended version of it.
The town wants to hang on to the things that make it work as a town. Like a lot of stops along the Metro-North, Greenwich does have a certain character that, along with its commutability to Manhattan, is a big part of what draws people to relocate here. Cute New England towns have mass appeal; indeed, as Justin R. Wolf recently observed here, the Hallmark Channel enthralls a robust viewing demographic every Christmas with its rom-coms set amongst the historic charm and walkability of fictional hamlets like Evergreen, Vermont. Greenwich could pass for a Hallmark movie set, especially at Christmas, with sparkling lights twined around the trees and a picture-perfect snowfall blanketing the shops on the avenue.
I asked Bronin how she thought commutability to Manhattan would stack up as a priority for buyers and renters in a post-pandemic world. Maybe more of us are working from home forever now; maybe, going forward, density near the train isn’t as important as density near town centers.
“We will have to see,” Bronin said. “We did see a lot of news stories about how people were moving to Connecticut. We don’t actually have the kind of housing that would enable young families to stay here. We need lots more housing in order to ensure that Connecticut has the ability to grow. We don’t have sufficient housing to meet demand. If we have more housing actually in the market, the market would become more affordable, and people would be able to move here.”
Desegregate CT recently shared its interactive Zoning Atlas of the entire state of Connecticut, and I reached out to Bronin again to check on the progress of the proposed legislation. “We have modified the proposals and think that they reflect broad consensus across many towns,” she told me over email, “balancing what is both workable and ambitious.”
Whatever happens with the bill, the Atlas is an incredible piece of interactive data visualization, incorporating all 2,616 zoning districts and two subdivision districts in the state of Connecticut. Zoning can be arcane, hermetic, and (dare I say it) boring; the task of comparing these codes statewide and making them digitally accessible is a design feat in itself. Desegregate CT used a racially charged moment to seize the spotlight. It would be a nice plot twist if hard work and compromise were to follow. Architectural character doesn’t make a town work—only the people who live there can do that.
Featured image by Leslie Yager.