by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas for ProPublica
WESTPORT, Conn. — A dirt field overgrown with weeds is the incongruous entrance to one of America’s wealthiest towns, a short walk to a Rodeo Drive-like stretch replete with upscale stores such as Tiffany & Co.
But this sad patch of land is also the physical manifestation of a broader turf war over what type of housing — and ultimately what type of people — to allow within Westport’s borders.
It started when a developer known for building large luxury homes envisioned something different back in 2014 for the 2.2 acre property: a mix of single- and multifamily housing that would accommodate up to 12 families. A higher density project is more cost efficient, he said, and would allow him to sell the units for less than the typical Westport home.
But the site was zoned to hold no more than four single-family houses, so he needed approval from a reluctant Westport Planning and Zoning Commission, which denied his plan. Residents erupted in fury each time he made a scaled-back proposal, and it took the developer four years after purchasing the property to win approval to build two duplexes and five single-family homes.
“You are selling out Westport,” one resident yelled out as the final plan came up for a commission vote last spring. Other residents picketed commission meetings with signs reading “Zoning is a Promise.”
The commission’s discussion was couched in what some would regard as code words and never directly addressed race or income. Chip Stephens, a Republican planning and zoning commissioner, voted against the plan, declaring, “To me, it’s too much density. It’s putting too much in a little area. To me, this is ghettoizing Westport.”
Now under construction, these two-bedroom duplexes and single-family homes have a price tag of $1.2 million, the going rate for a home in this swanky village just outside Bridgeport and Norwalk.
“We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this through. Would I do this all over again? No. Probably not,” said the developer, Johnny Schwartz, of Able Construction.
Welcome to Connecticut, a state with more separate — and unequal — housing than nearly everywhere else in the country.
This separation is by design.
Westport is only one example of a wealthy Connecticut suburb that has surrounded itself with invisible walls to block affordable housing and, by extension, the people who need it.
In a liberal state that has provided billions in taxpayer money to create more affordable housing, decisions at local zoning boards, the Connecticut Capitol and state agencies have thwarted court rulings and laws intended to remedy housing segregation. As far back as data has been kept, Connecticut’s low-income housing has been concentrated in poor cities and towns, an imbalance that has not budged over the last three decades.
Many zoning boards rely on their finely tuned regulations to keep housing segregation firmly in place. They point to frail public infrastructure, clogged streets, a lack of sidewalks and concerns of overcrowding that would damage what’s often referred to as “neighborhood character.”
An investigation by the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica has found that more than three dozen Connecticut towns have blocked construction of any privately developed duplexes and apartments within their borders for the last two decades, often through exclusionary zoning requirements. In 18 of those towns, it’s been at least 28 years.
In Westport — where gated residences overlook the Long Island Sound and voters solidly backed Democrats in the most recent state and presidential elections — private developers have been allowed to open just 65 affordable housing units over the last three decades. Public housing rentals operated by the local housing authority have also grown at a snail’s pace, with 71 new units opening in this charming small town of 10,400 homes.
The impact of this logjam on families is that the share of housing specifically dedicated for low-income residents has actually decreased by small percentages in one-quarter of Connecticut’s municipalities since 1990.
“I think the vestiges of our racial past are far from over,” said former Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who left office in early 2019 after eight years and regularly butted heads with General Assembly members who wanted local officials to have even more authority over housing decisions. For minority residents striving for safe and affordable housing, the state has “denied the opportunity that we allowed white middle-class aspirants to access,” Malloy said.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers and bureaucrats watch from the sidelines, reluctant to intervene.
This doesn’t appear likely to change any time soon.
Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat from Greenwich who took office this year, declined to be interviewed for this story, but he has said his statewide goal is to “work collaboratively with the locals in terms of what they want and what they are not willing to take. At the end of the day, that community will probably take the lead on making that choice.”
Lisa Tepper Bates, Lamont’s senior coordinator for housing and transit-oriented development, said in an interview that the administration hopes to bring change by adopting a “different philosophy, which is to go to the communities and try and have this discussion and try and see how far we can get.”
The Cunningham family is feeling the brunt of decisions left to local zoning boards.
Ashana Cunningham, a 33-year-old mother of three, lives 9 miles from Westport’s posh downtown.
Each workday, she takes a bus from a homeless shelter in Bridgeport, where she lives with her family among a landscape of abandoned factories, run-down houses and trash-lined streets to her job in a suburban cornucopia a few miles away.
She tends to children from privileged families at a pricey day care in Fairfield. Two days a week she works a second job at Family Dollar.
This is not the life Cunningham imagined. She earned an associate degree to become a medical assistant but has never made more than $14 an hour. She and her wife struggled to pay $1,200-a-month rent for a small Bridgeport apartment, and then her wife became disabled and could not work.
A car crash further complicated their lives. Cunningham was injured and left without transportation — and, ultimately, out of a job.
By the time she found the day care job, which pays $12.50 an hour, the family was living in the shelter, where the smell of bleach lingers and bachata music from a neighbor’s apartment pulses through the walls. Her second job as a cashier pays $11 dollars an hour.
She knows that she is trapped, that moving to a town like Westport, Trumbull or Fairfield is impossible.
“There’s no other place for us to go. Fairfield or Trumbull? Forget about it,” Cunningham said. “You can’t afford to pay your rent if you are only making $707 every two weeks.”
“You Build Where You Can”
Racial and economic segregation is not unique to Connecticut, but it is extreme and runs counter to the state’s liberal image. Democrats have controlled the state legislature for 22 years and the governor’s mansion for eight.
In southwest Connecticut, the gap between rich and poor is wider than anywhere else in the country. Black and Hispanic residents statewide live in some of the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods, census data shows.
The repercussions of living in segregated neighborhoods often last a lifetime.
“Neighborhoods matter,” researchers at Brown, Harvard and the U.S. Census Bureau concluded.
The “Opportunity Atlas” they created makes clear just how much it matters by showing the stark differences in where the 20.5 million children they tracked ended up. For example, children who grew up in Cunningham’s Bridgeport neighborhood were five times more likely to be imprisoned on April 1, 2010, than those who grew up 2 miles down the road over the Fairfield line. The Bridgeport natives also made half the income of their Fairfield peers.
But the families of low-income children have few housing options in Connecticut’s higher-opportunity neighborhoods: 63 of the state’s 169 municipalities have no housing authorities to facilitate the creation of public housing and manage it.
In southwest Connecticut, where Cunningham lives with her family, it costs 3.5 times more to live near high-scoring elementary schools than the struggling schools her children attend, the Brookings Institution reported.
“Would-be movers would have to spend about $25,000 more per year on housing to make that jump,” Brookings found.
Malloy, now a visiting professor at Boston College, explained in an interview why such a large share of affordable housing that opened during his tenure was in the poorest neighborhoods.
“You build where you can, where a community is inviting,” he said. “I do believe that there is not an openness and willingness to have the people who work in town, live in town. Maybe that’s because some towns want everyone to be the same. I don’t know why a town wouldn’t want a fireman or a policeman or a day care worker who works in their community to be able to live in that community.”
During Malloy’s years in office, his administration directed $2.1 billion in public funding to renovate run-down public housing or build new housing so more low-income residents have an affordable place to live. The new housing was disproportionately built in the state’s poorest communities, however. Three-quarters of the new units constructed since 2011 were in the state’s 10 poorest municipalities, although only 20% of Connecticut’s housing stock is located in these communities. Just over 5% opened in the 10 wealthiest towns.
Government subsidies aside, another way to bring down housing costs is to build duplexes or apartments on a lot — but that’s not being allowed in many communities, despite state law requiring local zoning commissions to “encourage” such development in order to “promote housing choice and economic diversity in housing.”
While dozens of towns have not permitted any duplexes and apartments to be built in two decades, the multiunit construction in another three dozen towns just replaced similar units that had been demolished. (This new construction data only includes privately owned residential developments and not public housing, dorms or hotels.)
Local zoning rules are often to blame for the lack of more affordable development.
“You can’t even build a duplex. Zoning just kills it,” said Sean Ghio, policy director at the Partnership for Strong Communities, an advocacy group that lobbies for more affordable housing. “People often fear the unknown, and as a result try to keep the unknown out of their lives by maintaining the status quo. The status quo in Connecticut is living in segregated communities.”
Local officials, however, say there are often legitimate reasons to deny multiunit housing because local infrastructure is not in place or there are environmental concerns.
“Unfortunately, we are limited in what we can provide,” said Joyce Stille, who since 1995 has been the administrative officer of Bolton, a small town in central Connecticut that has limited sewer access and where just one duplex has received a permit in 30 years. “Because of our proximity to Vernon and Manchester, we don’t really need any [affordable housing]. They have such a wide range of options. People don’t come to Bolton because Bolton has a higher cost of living.”
Only 19 cities or towns allow housing with three or more units to be built without requiring special permits, according to a 2013 review by Trinity College’s Cities, Suburbs, and Schools Project and the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Twenty-five municipalities explicitly prohibit such housing and 123 require a special town permit.
In some towns that do allow it, other zoning requirements make it exceedingly difficult for projects to come to fruition since they need more land to build anything besides a single-family home.
For example, Monroe, a high-income town in southwest Connecticut, requires at least 70 acres for multifamily housing construction, and each unit may have no more than two bedrooms. A single-family home requires 1 acre.
In its specially zoned “Housing Opportunity District,” 20 acres of land are required to build multifamily housing, but because of density restrictions only 13 apartments or townhomes may be built.
Avon requires 15 acres for a two-unit home, compared with 1/3 acre for a single-family residence.
“A large lot requirement makes it financially infeasible for such housing to be built. That’s just logic,” said Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens, who did the analysis that Connecticut’s Department of Housing used in its mandatory report to the federal government on exclusionary zoning.
A Watered-Down Law
All of this comes 30 years after the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled for the first time that exclusionary zoning practices that quash moderate-priced housing are illegal. That groundbreaking case involved a truck driver attempting to build an affordable single-family home in middle-class East Hampton that was smaller than the minimum square feet the town required. The justices ruled against the town, saying its requirements “are a form of economic discrimination.”
In the following months, state lawmakers passed a law that set the stage for the courts to review local zoning decisions in towns with few affordable homes. Most notably, the law — commonly referred to by its statutory reference as 8-30g — outlined the process for developers to bypass local zoning decisions by going through the courts if they set aside 30% of a project’s units for poor people.
But the law had limited impact. Just 2% of all the housing developed in Connecticut since then is dedicated to low-income families. Since the law passed, the share of housing for low-income residents has actually decreased in 47 of the state’s 169 municipalities, according to state Department of Housing data.
“Any developer who’s going to use [this law] has to be ready for the potential of a long, expensive slog, first through the zoning commission and then through the court system,” said Timothy Hollister, the land-use attorney who won the East Hampton case. He has been trying since 2005 to win approval for a client to open affordable units in Westport.
Each year, legislators file a slew of bills to weaken the law.
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, a Republican from Fairfield who served as the ranking member of the legislature’s Housing Committee from 2013 to 2018, said her top committee priority is to scale back the law.
“Predatory developers are taking advantage of communities, and we aren’t getting much affordable units out of it,” she said. “In 30 years, the needle hasn’t moved. It’s not working. Let’s brainstorm and come up with some ideas that may actually work.”
Former Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Republican from Fairfield, said amending the law was a big issue for his caucus during his 16 years in the state Senate.
“Look, I get the argument that you need it. You can’t let the Westports and the Greenwichs off. You have to have something. I just think there is a better way,” said McKinney, who left office in 2014 to run for governor, a bid he ultimately lost.
He and Kupchick believe the state should provide financial incentives for towns that allow more affordable housing to be built within their borders.
Otherwise, he said, developers game the system.
“They are not really out to build affordable housing for the community. They are out to build market-rate housing, and if they have to put some affordable units with it to get approval, that’s what happens,” McKinney said. “There are developers who literally come into these meetings with two plans and say, ‘Give us this plan, or you get this affordable housing plan.’”
After years of failed attempts, lawmakers in 2017 finally weakened 8-30g by making it easier for towns to get exemptions from the law’s requirements.
Malloy vetoed the measure, because he said it would “perpetuate the harmful effects of bad economic policy and institutional segregation.” But the General Assembly overrode the veto.
This March, the Department of Housing granted Westport — where 3.4% of the housing is considered affordable — a four-year exemption, which prevents a judge from overriding its zoning decisions.
The exemption protects the town from legal challenges, but it came after the zoning commission had already approved 44 new low-income units, mostly studios or one-bedroom units with monthly rents starting at $1,400. A commissioner made it clear during project hearings that only the threat of a lawsuit under 8-30g persuaded him to approve the plans. And now that threat is gone.
“The statute requires me as a commissioner to essentially pass this proposal, or give very narrow reasons for denying it, none of which were presented as evidence to this commission. So we don’t have that option. We must pass it,” said then-Commissioner Alan Hodge, a Democrat, before the 2016 vote.
Westport currently has 265 units for low-income individuals that were constructed with public or private funding, though one-third of those units replaced existing affordable housing. For example, the town purchased Westport’s only trailer park and replaced its 60 mobile homes with 93 affordable apartments run by the local housing authority.
What this means is that approximately 1 out of every 30 housing units in Westport is dedicated to low- or moderate-income residents, compared with 1 in 8 next door in Norwalk, or 1 in 5 in Bridgeport 9 miles away.
In May, the commissioners signaled they were prepared to reject a new batch of affordable units. They say they are doing a great job developing affordable housing.
“They are unnecessary,” Danielle Dobin, a Democratic commissioner, said during the panel’s discussion of the proposed units. “This commission and the commission before us have been very successful in creating so much more affordable housing in Westport.”
Just over 4% of Westport residents are considered to be living in poverty — two-and-a half times less than the state’s poverty rate. Just under 1% of those who live in this town are black and 5% are Hispanic, a long way off from the state’s makeup.
The Lamont administration expressed satisfaction with the current law as it stands.
“8-30g is the law in Connecticut and can be one of many important tools we have to ensure that the housing our residents need is available to them,” Bates, the senior coordinator for housing and transit-oriented development, said. “The administration is seeking no changes at this time.”
Asked what happens if minds can’t be changed, Bates declined to talk about next steps.
“I constitutionally don’t believe that in general people’s minds can’t be changed. I think it’s a question of whether there is an effective way to engage them in discussion and conversation. I think sometimes you can go a lot further that way,” Bates said. “You know this is a new administration, so it is hard to come into it and say you are ready to beat somebody with a hammer when you haven’t had that conversation with them.”
Local objections to affordable housing projects run the gamut, with developers typically facing intense zoning board scrutiny about issues like a lack of sidewalks or potential impact to the environment.
Broader concerns, such as preserving a community’s character or the quality of its schools, are also frequently cited.
During his State of the Town Address a few months ago, Westport’s Republican first selectman, Jim Marpe, said high-density developments keep him up at night.
“The challenge to our community is not just to the character of neighborhoods, but also to firefighting and police response, potentially to educational capacity, to human services support and to our tradition as a single-family home community,” Marpe told his audience.
He added, “Within the tri-state region, Westport remains an attractive and desirable location relative to many nearby communities, and we must invest in keeping our town in that position.”
This mindset was on display in March, when a disgruntled Westport board discussed a proposed 187-unit apartment complex, of which 57 units would be available to low-income residents, located a half-mile from the town’s commuter train station. This developer has been trying to break ground since 2005.
At one point, board members became incensed when the developer’s attorney expressed disappointment that town officials declined to meet with officials in neighboring Norwalk to negotiate changes that would need to be made so the gravel road in that city could be used for emergencies at the complex. The pathway is on land adjacent to the proposed apartment complex and would serve as a second exit that Westport officials say is necessary for emergency vehicles to access the property. Board members appeared to resent the suggestion that they take any action that would be interpreted as benefiting the developer.
“I would like to put it on the record, I am vehemently opposed, disappointed and don’t understand why the town of Westport would be involved in a meeting like that,” Stephens, a planning and zoning commissioner, said. Asked why he was opposed, Stephens declined to elaborate during a recent interview, saying it’s an ongoing legal matter.
When unanimously rejecting the proposed development last week, however, commissioners pointed to uncertainty about whether Norwalk would allow its gravel road to be paved and used as a second exit during emergencies.
Sometimes local officials even offer money to keep affordable housing from being built.
Richard Freedman, another developer who has been trying for years to build in Westport, said the town offered to purchase the land on which he proposed building 48 apartments, 29 of which would be for low-income families.
“The town attorney approached my attorney to buy the property. I said: ‘It’s not for sale. We are building affordable housing,’” said Freedman, president of Garden Homes Management.
Email correspondence from the developer’s attorney to town attorney Ira Bloom in October 2015 specifically rejects the town’s offer to buy the property. Bloom responds the next day with alternative locations that might be more appealing..
Asked about the town’s attempt to purchase the property, Bloom said, “I don’t recall that.” He remembers conversations about finding an alternative building site for the developer, and he said he helped connect the developer with other groups interested in purchasing the property.
In 2001, the town paid $4.2 million to purchase a 4-acre property adjacent to a local elementary school where only 5% of the students come from low-income families. The developer had planned to develop 60 units, of which 15 would have been dedicated for poor residents. The land is now a community garden and parking lot.
Several years later, the town’s first selectman reached out to several potential buyers to facilitate the $14.5 million purchase of another property where the owner wanted to build 200 apartments by replacing a local hotel, the Westport Inn. Sixty of the units would have been for poor residents.
A hotel remains there today.
Even if elected officials are supportive of affordable housing, the opposition from residents can be intense.
Petition drives are launched. Pamphlets are mailed. Lawn signs go up. Facebook groups are set up to strategize. Fundraising campaigns are created to pay for land-use attorneys and environmental experts. Connecticut has more law firms than any other state specializing in land use, a key indicator of restrictive zoning, the Brookings Institution reported.
In Westport, a political party was established to help elect zoning commissioners who the party’s leaders believe will preserve the neighborhoods and small-town New England character.
Occasionally, residents voice fear of the type of people they believe affordable housing will bring.
“The drug addicts are going to be here, believe me,” William Woermer, of Branford, testified in November 2017 about a proposal to demolish a 50-unit, run-down low-income housing project for seniors and replace it with 67 units for poor families. “Retirees, disabled, old people — I have no objection to renovate the whole place and make it nice for them. But don’t get too much of that riffraff in. There will be a lot of riffraff. Then we go onto, with a project like this, you need security guards in the area.” Woermer did not respond to an interview request.
In Greenwich, a public hearing in August 2017 about plans for an apartment complex next to the town’s commuter train station quickly devolved into residents complaining that low-income residents wouldn’t be able to afford to shop locally. “Nobody goes to our restaurants [if you’re] living in affordable housing,” Adam Tooter, a resident who had recently bought a $1.5 million home, said during the August hearing. Tooter did not respond to messages.
Gayle DePoli, another local resident, said: “Those people won’t be able to afford to live in Old Greenwich. They won’t be able to afford to shop in King’s [gourmet grocery store]. They won’t be able to afford to eat in any restaurant but Dunkin’ Donuts and maybe grab a slice at Arcadia Pizza. They won’t even be able to afford getting a scoop of ice cream at Darlene’s.”
During a recent interview, DePoli said she is opposed to the development because the area is already too congested and it is unfair to have poor people living in such high-cost areas.
“It’s not about not in my neighborhood. It’s: enough in my area. It’s overbuilt with condos,” said DePoli, an independent contractor for media companies in Manhattan. “Your heart’s got to bleed a little bit for people that need low-income housing, and then you are going to put them in the middle of something they can’t afford. They can afford the rent, but what else? They aren’t going to the restaurants down there. Everything they can afford [is a car or bus ride] away. It’s pretty sad.”
In March, the commissioners approved a scaled-back version of this proposed development that will have about half as many affordable apartments. The apartment will be located 2 miles from Greenwich Point, a beach restricted to residents only until the Connecticut Supreme Court in 2001 unanimously ordered the town to open it to everyone.
During a zoning commission meeting in rural Oxford in 2014 for a proposed affordable housing project, the town’s first selectman expressed concern there would not be enough parking for visitors on holidays, specifically pointing to one that originated in Mexico.
“I’m sure they could have their little parking spaces, but somebody throws a party, or it’s Cinco de Mayo or something else and pretty soon you can’t park there. Well, you also can’t bring an ambulance there and you can’t bring a fire engine there,” said First Selectman George Temple during a public hearing on the project, adding: “I’m not for putting slumlords into Oxford. You know, that’s perhaps an overstatement, and I am sure it is, but I am concerned about these units.”
Malloy has little patience for such concerns.
“Is safety genuinely 100% the fear or is there something else at play and the reason why these projects aren’t moving forward,” he said. “Let’s drill down for a second. Every one of those towns has housing on a street that doesn’t have a sidewalk. The difference being that those are single-family homes which are not affordable.”
All of this pushback is code for not allowing in poor people, says Hollister, the land-use attorney.
“Does anybody say we need to keep blacks and Hispanics out of Westport? No, but they talk about property values, safety and preserving open space — all the things that a town can do to prevent development that would bring up a more economically and racially diverse housing population,” Hollister said. “They don’t use the overt racial terms, but it’s absolutely clear to everybody in the room that’s what they’re talking about.”
Marpe, Westport’s first selectman, disputes the idea that the town has practiced discriminatory zoning.
“I have lived in many communities in the United States and I would argue Westport is as open and welcoming as any community I have ever lived in. So to cast that as an underlying principle, I would disagree,” he said during an interview. “Anyone who asserts that we don’t want anything to do with ‘those people,’ I would strongly disagree.”
Marpe points to the town’s commitment to providing emergency housing for men, women and children, such as homeless shelters and halfway houses.
He also points out that decisions on what gets to break ground do not rest with him alone. He cites a proposal he made early in his five and a half years in office for a private developer to build 167 units for senior citizens — 111 dedicated for low-income residents — on a 23-acre town-owned site where an abandoned mansion has sat vacant for years. That proposal was rejected by the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Representative Town Meeting, Westport’s legislative body, didn’t have enough votes to override their decision.
Town officials have designated the site as open space, preventing anything from being developed on the land. Marpe and Mary Young, the town’s director of planning and zoning, said there is a path for projects to make their way more easily through zoning approval. That “streamlined process” is only available, however, for those looking to build in one section of town: the highly commercialized Route 1.
Winning approval outside of that zone is hard. That was the case for the developer who waited four years to build multiunit housing on the lot of a former landscaping business, which is a short distance from the high-end shopping district.
“Should it have gone faster? I’m sure from anyone’s perspective, it was not streamlined. But it was not one of the processes that was enacted by my Planning and Zoning Commission. That was a developer who took his own path,” Young said. “If we’ve laid out the red carpet and asked you to come, you’re more likely to get what you need more quickly.”
Stephens, the zoning commissioner, said there were legitimate reasons for the application to take so long, none of which had to do with the type of residents it would attract.
“We have one of the most welcoming communities here,” Stephens said. “We go above and beyond. I would be aghast if anyone suggested differently.”
Marpe said he must listen to voters.
“I have to respect the fact that people who have moved here, or have grown up here and continue to live here, are here because the nature of the community is what they are looking for,” Marpe said. “So to try and change that nature with large structures maybe gets to some goal, but I don’t believe [that’s why] people who have invested in this community and want to be part of this community … came here or stayed here.”
When asked if the town has, in fact, purchased or arranged for others to purchase property to keep it from being developed as affordable housing, Marpe said it is not a strategy of the town to avoid having more affordable housing.
He facilitated the purchase of the Westport Inn because it’s the town’s only hotel outside a 12-room inn on the Long Island Sound, he explained.
“When we have had serious storms, the Westport Inn was the one place we could offer somewhat permanent shelter,” he said. “I believe there is a need for that as well. That was the motivating factor in my mind.”
Several hotels are a few miles down the road in Norwalk or Fairfield.
The new developments that have been built in Westport are not meeting the demand for affordable housing.
The last time the town’s housing authority opened its wait list three years ago, 1,000 people applied in 30 days. Then the waitlist closed, and it hasn’t been opened since. The housing authority still gets calls every day, including on weekends.
“They come in at all hours,” said Carol Martin, the executive director of the Westport Housing Authority. “It is very much at a crisis.”
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