Chapter 3 Excluding Through Zoning Lines

This chapter makes the hidden history of zoning more visible, and explains how decisions made by elected leaders, real estate developers, and property owners shaped the suburban landscape in metropolitan Hartford. Zoning is key to understanding the history of where people live in our segregated US metropolitan areas today. In general, zoning refers to rules governing how land can be used. Some policies have progressive goals, such as separating industrial factories from residential neighborhoods. In present-day debates, exclusionary zoning refers to policies that favor expensive single-family home construction that requires large amounts of property, over more affordable multi-family homes that use less land per resident. In Connecticut, the origins of exclusionary zoning can be traced back to efforts by the West Hartford town government to block a Hartford Jewish grocer from building a store in a residential neighborhood in the early 1920s. Although suburban town leaders failed to block this store, they helped spark a statewide political movement to create stronger legal tools to control future real estate development in order to exclude certain types of property–and people that suburban residents deemed undesirable. West Hartford’s role in this history matters, because in 1924 the town raced to become Connecticut’s first municipality to enact local zoning ordinances enabled by a new state law. West Hartford also hired national experts to design a town-wide exclusionary zoning plan that set precedents followed by other suburbs in subsequent decades. Exclusionary zoning laws intentionally made it more expensive to build homes in suburban neighborhoods, which effectively deterred lower-income people from living there. Unlike other discriminatory barriers of this era—such as mortgage redlining, restrictive covenants, and segregated public housing—exclusionary zoning did not directly refer to race, religion, or nationality. Instead, exclusionary zoning cleverly carved up suburban neighborhoods using minimum-land rules that segregated residents by their wealth. In this way, exclusionary zoning became a more sophisticated tool for housing discrimination that largely resisted the fair-housing legislation of the 1960s-1970s civil rights era and continues to divide Connecticut residents into the present day.