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June 7, 2023

New study shows link between restrictive zoning and segregation

A recent analysis from researchers at the Urban Institute and Cornell University found that strict zoning regulations limiting construction to single-family homes in Connecticut are associated with inadequate access to affordable housing and reinforce segregation.

The research found that the majority of land in the state (62%) allows single-family homes only, with the greatest percentage of single-family-only zones in suburbs towns (67%) and rural areas (58.7%).

In addition, the researchers determined that single-family zones in Connecticut have residents who are more likely to be white, possess a bachelor’s degree and own a home, compared to residents of areas where zoning allows multifamily construction. 

While suburbs and rural areas have the most restrictive zoning policies, the largest cities tend to permit more multifamily construction.

Zoning districts that allow multifamily construction are associated with higher concentrations of non-white, Black and Hispanic residents, the study demonstrated. 

Only 25.9% of the land in Connecticut is zoned to allow four or more units, either by right or after a public hearing. In the big cities – Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury – 26.9% of the land allows buildings with four or more units, compared to 21.1% in the suburbs, according to the research.

Only 7.6% of Danbury allows four or more units, the study says.

Danbury and Stamford – two of the wealthiest cities in the state – allow single-family-only homes in 72.6% and 80% of their land, according to the study. Hartford, the poorest city in Connecticut, has the lowest share of land that allows single-family only homes at 11.7%. 

Urban Institute lead researcher Yonah Freemark said the towns and cities that minimize construction of higher-density homes are excluding people who are low-income and not white.

“These exclusionary zoning policies correlate with economically, racially, and ethnically inequitable outcomes,” Freemark said.

The research also found that home values tend to be lowest in the big cities, with median home values that are substantially lower in areas zoned for four-or-more-unit buildings than in areas zoned for single-family homes. In the big eight cities, the difference is roughly $200,000 versus $350,000. 

On average, across zoning categories, rural areas have the state’s highest-earning residents, followed by suburbs and then the big eight cities. 

“Insofar as its rural communities have the wealthiest residents, Connecticut differs from most other states; this is possibly attributable to the fact that about one-third of the rural areas in the state are relatively close to or within the economically vibrant and high-land-value New York City region,” according to the study.

The report concludes that local, state and federal officials who want to reduce housing costs and advance racial and economic integration should “reform policies to more evenly distribute higher number-of-unit zoning land and housing options across different jurisdictions.”

“Allowing localities to continue to exclude people of color and low-income households through their land-use policies is tantamount to encouraging segregation,” the report says.

The study was authored by Freemark along with Lydia Lo, research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute and Sara C. Bronin, a professor at Cornell University specializing in planning, law, real estate and architecture, who is married to Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin.

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