Affordable housing is by far the most mobilizing policy issue in Connecticut. According to a 2022 CBIA poll of voters in the state, 65% of respondents ranked “inflation and the cost of living” as the top two issues that electoral candidates should prioritize, compared to 48% for “state taxes and government spending” and just 28% for “the economy and labor shortage.” Although inflation and cost of living may seem benign and beyond the scope of housing, the poll reflects deep anxieties about the cost and availability of affordable housing when put in perspective. In Connecticut, the cost of existing “affordable housing” already exceeds the income of most renters, and the impact of inflation on rents is outsized.
The stereotype of Connecticut as a hivemind of boat shoes and Vineyard Vines-wearing, lawsuit-threatening, wealthy white families may be cosmetically true in wealthier neighborhoods of towns like Westport, Greenwich and Darien, but the housing crisis has exposed deep fractures caused by the racially and economically-discriminatory practice of redlining prominent in Connecticut until the 1970s, when it was nominally outlawed. The solution to these racialized inequalities could be found partially in an all-hands-on-deck expansion of meaningfully affordable housing across the state, but some Connecticut lawmakers and so-called “anti-home” activists from wealthier towns are pushing back. The racist and classist footprint of redlining in Connecticut is thus being preserved under the pretext of “local control” over planning and zoning.
Although the history of redlining has received more widespread attention in recent years, likely due to the rapid explosion of discourse on racial justice following the police murder of George Floyd and the historic street mobilizations that ensued, it still suffers from the sort of “throwaway” buzzword status that most social justice language is mocked for. As such, redlining’s impact is often understated, especially when it comes to states north of the Mason-Dixon line, which are not as culturally associated with anti-Black racism as, say, the Jim Crow South. Connecticut has successfully skirted this negative perception despite being one of the most racially-segregated states in the nation — precisely due to redlining.
According to “On the Line,” an open-access textbook produced by Trinity College faculty on the history of housing discrimination in Hartford County, the predecessors for redlining in Connecticut were “restrictive covenants,” emerging as early as the 1910s, which allowed towns to prevent the construction of houses that would fall below a certain dollar minimum. This de facto wealth discrimination was expanded into racially-restrictive covenants in the 1940s — with the aid of the 1926 Supreme Court case Corrigan v. Buckley — to empower white homeowners to deny the sale of their property to Black and Jewish buyers. The process of Connecticut towns issuing racially restrictive covenants persisted, albeit infrequently, until 1972, when federal courts ruled the process unconstitutional.
“On the Line” traces the exclusionary zoning practices characteristic of redlining to a 1923 dispute in which the West Hartford building inspector refused to grant a permit to Jewish World War I veteran Jacob Solomon Goldberg, who wished to build a grocery store in a vacant lot. During this conflict, which Goldberg eventually won, West Hartford lawmakers pushed through a zoning bill that would give “the town the power ‘to protect the residential character’ of designated areas,” kicking off a theme of local control over zoning being used as a cudgel against people of color, poor people and, nowadays, affordable housing projects as a whole. By the 1950s, suburbs around Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven “began to compete against one another by establishing more exclusive zoning requirements” that established minimum sizes for single family homes that betrayed a clear bias against low-income families. Similar to other redlining municipalities across the country, New Haven demarcated zones ranging from “A” or “best” to “D” or “hazardous,” with Black families overwhelmingly being denied loans for the former and thus being forced into the latter, creating de facto segregated racial and cultural enclaves that exist today.
Data produced by the New Haven-based DataHaven project suggests that all of these dynamics are at play today in the city of Bridgeport and the surrounding Fairfield County, Connecticut’s wealthiest county. According to the DataHaven report, “The six wealthiest towns in Fairfield County… had a median household income of $181,000,” compared to $45,000 for Bridgeport. The report also shows that the average life expectancy in Central Bridgeport is 19% less than its wealthier neighbor, Westport. Today, this tangible legacy of exclusionary zoning is being preserved by state lawmakers like Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield and Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, using the guise of local control to oppose legislative pushes to desegregate Connecticut. They are echoed from the sidelines by anti-home activists like former State Representative for Greenwich, Kimberly Fiorello, who characterizes attempts to centralize the process of proliferating multi-family affordable housing units as instituting a “zoning tsar.”
Although housing discrimination on the basis of race and religion is, on paper, outlawed, that hardly means its effects are absent. Opposing the construction of affordable housing units in wealthy, white municipalities is the chief obstacle to desegregating Connecticut and addressing critical and related issues such as widespread homelessness — aside from the bipartisan consensus of opposing higher taxation on the rich. Connecticut residents need to see anti-home activism for what it is: the preservation of redlining’s legacy.