Expanding Zoning Across Suburbs

Josiah Woods and his 1920s contemporaries never used the phrase exclusionary zoning when laying out their plans with minimum-land rules for West Hartford. But Connecticut town leaders were highly motivated by a fiscal equation that favored exclusion of lower-income families. In this era, local governmental services—such as public schools and streets—were funded almost entirely by local property taxes, with limited contributions from state or federal funds. Each town’s primary goal was to increase its taxable property, also called the grand list, meaning the assessor’s official estimate of the value of all homes, businesses, factories, and farms within its boundaries. If a town could increase its total taxable property, without sharply increasing the percentage spent on government services, property tax rates would remain stable for homeowners who voted in local elections.

But towns fiercely competed against one another to increase their property tax base. Although metropolitan Hartford functioned as a regional economy, colonial-era Connecticut carved out towns as separate local governments, rather than pooling resources together as a county government. During the 1920s, when mass transportation and home construction enabled Hartford residents to move to nearby suburbs and commute back to their workplaces, this movement fueled town-versus-town competition to attract higher-income residents, who could afford to purchase higher-priced homes, and pay higher property tax bills per family to local government. Towns quickly adopted zoning laws with minimum-land rules per family. More restrictive zoning rules raised the average home price by requiring a larger land purchase, and the lower population density reduced the number of families and children who needed government services such as schools. Exclusionary zoning fit perfectly into the logic of Connecticut’s town government and property tax system—at least for the winners in the race to attract higher-income families, but not the losers.

TO COME in this section

This section will trace the growth of exclusionary zoning during the twentieth century, as Hartford-area suburbs competed against one another to attract higher-income families…

TODO: add narrative about the rise of zoning in Bloomfield (which hired its own expert in the 1920s to catch up with West Hartford) and Avon (were residents initially opposed zoning in the 1930s) into the 1950s…

Across these three suburbs, the most restrictive minimum-land requirement for a single-family home increased from 9,000 square feet in the 1920s to over 87,000 square feet in the 1950s, as shown in Table 3.4.112

Table 3.4: Most Exclusive Minimum-land-per-family Zoning Rules in Three Hartford Suburbs, mid-1950s
Town Zone Min. land per family Scale diagram
Avon East 87,000 sq ft
Bloomfield R-40 40,000 sq ft
West Hartford AAA 18,000 sq ft

In the mid-1950s, the minimum amount of land required per single-family home in Avon’s most exclusive zone (87,000 square feet) was more than two times larger than Bloomfield’s most exclusive zone (40,000 square feet), and more than four times larger than West Hartford’s most exclusive zone (18,000 square feet). Icons by Georgiana Ionescu.

TODO: Describe how the three towns decided to zone land for future residential growth that would attract higher-income families. To draw meaningful comparisons between suburbs, we digitized and stitched together mid-1950s paper zoning maps from their three separate town governments, and converted their minimum-land rules into a common scale with modern labels. For example, the most exclusionary zone in this map, R-87, represents a residential zone that requires at least 87,000 square feet of land (about 2 acres) to construct a single-family home…as shown in Figure 3.12.

Figure 3.12: Explore the interactive map by floating your cursor to view mid-1950s minimum-land zoning rules in three suburban towns: Avon, Bloomfield, and West Hartford, Connecticut.

TODO: … How much land did each town assign to exclusionary residential zones in the mid-1950s? …summarize data as shown in Table 3.5.

Table 3.5: Percent of Land Area by Town and Zone Type, mid-1950s
Zone equivalent Avon Bloomfield West Hartford
R-87 26%
R-40 32%
R-30 72% 27%
R-20 14%
R-18 31%
R-15 10%
R-10.5 19%
R-10 5%
R-9 24%
R-6 11%
R-3 6%
R-1 2%
non-residential 2% 12% 7%
Total acres 14979 16943 14333

TODO: Note that a strict calculation might manually remove park areas (such as Pennfield state park in Bloomfield) from residential zone calculations, but towns did include them in zoning maps, so left as-is.

TODO: describe key themes from zoning debates in other suburbs, such as Windsor 1955 (anti-child) and Wethersfield 1953 (Custis NAACP case)

Is Zoning Racist?

Outline of chapter conclusion: While a century has passed since West Hartford and other Connecticut towns first enacted local zoning laws in 1924, conflicts have heated up in recent years, largely due to legal and political activism by leading organizations such as CT OCA and DesegregateCT… [describe]…
A recurring question arises in debates between advocates of change and defenders of current policy: Is zoning racist?
Example from news coverage of Woodbridge [describe…]
“Residents and some of the zoning commissioners have expressed outrage that those asking for zoning overhaul are describing the town as racist. ‘You[r application] essentially called Woodbridge a bunch of racists,’ town commissioner Paul Schatz said in February… The team from the Yale clinic and Open Communities Alliance, however, has said the town has had decades to do the right thing—and that its inaction has had an impact on who can live in Woodbridge. While not explicitly racist, the zoning rules are having a disparate impact on Black and Latino people, they said.”… ‘Woodbridge’s zoning restrictions over the decades have driven up housing costs, and these high costs exclude many Black and Hispanic families and keep Woodbridge whiter and wealthier than the surrounding region. And so, when Woodbridge stays the same, Woodbridge stays segregated,’ Anderson said. ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’"113

Fair-housing advocates distinguish between the intent versus the impact of zoning laws, and historical analysis can provide some deeper insights:

First, looking back at the history of Connecticut’s zoning laws in the 1920s, there is no direct evidence of intent to discriminate by race, religion, or nationality… In fact, zoning lawyers such as Edward Bassett ensured that overtly discriminatory labels were removed in order for zoning to survive courtroom challenges…

Second, despite its “color-blind” language, Connecticut’s zoning policies from 1920s onward have clear intent to exclude by access to wealth. Best evidence of exclusionary zoning is minimum-land rules that favored higher-price single-family housing on large property lots, and prohibited more-affordable multi-family housing or made it uneconomic for developers to build. Even though Connecticut state law justified zoning on basis of public health and welfare, local governments gave no such reasoning when they originally drew up min-land rules in 1920s-50s, prior to pro-environmental justifications of more recent decades….

Third, exclusionary zoning of the 1920s in towns such as West Hartford expressed intent to block urban influences from entering suburb through coded language. Best evidence is photos of apartment buildings that were designed to scare suburban residents about the “undesirable” types of people who lived in them…. such as immigrants….. By its nature, coded language is partially hidden, not meant to be clearly identifiable, and plausibly deniable by author. But looking back through historical lenses at the anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant context of the 1920s, the coded language of Whitten’s West Hartford report stands out… zoning was intended to protect current residents by attract upper-income families and keeping out lower-income…

Fourth, historical lens also reveals the relative absence of race in the 1920s-1950s zoning debates in the overwhelmingly White towns of suburban Hartford. (Different from proposed racial zoning in Atlanta, for example.) During this period, White town leaders and property owners who supported them used zoning primarily for economic exclusion, as a powerful legal tool to physically and socially distance neighborhoods by wealth, to separate the haves from the have-nots. In suburban Hartford, we see little evidence that zoning was used for racial exclusion prior to 1953 Custis case, because White towns relied on other tools of housing discrimination, such as racial steering and refusal to show property by real estate agents who belong to board (TODO: cite earlier chapter), to keep out the relatively small number of middle-class Blacks and Latinos who had funds and desire to buy homes in White suburbs.

Fifth, the long-term impact of zoning becomes clearer when seen through historical lenses. During the 1920s-50s, suburbs such as WH, Bloomfield, Avon created economically exclusionary zoning…. and those rules have shaped nearly a century of who benefits from rising property values, and who can afford to live where. White middle-class families that bought homes in suburbs protected by economically exclusionary zoning benefitted financially over time, which contributes to the White-Black wealth gap today….. In the US today, Black and Latino families have less wealth than White families, on average, which means that economically exclusionary zoning policies have a disproportionate racial impact.

[TODO: summarize answer to question “is zoning racist” by using historical insights on intent, coding, and impact…]

  1. TODO FIX: Avon Zoning Regulations (amended Oct 19, 1951, and Fall 1953); Bloomfield (adopted March 15, 1950); West Hartford (amended to Dec 3, 1951); adapted from Avon, “Present Zoning Fact Sheet [Map of Avon and Adjacent Towns]” (Joseph Moschner and Avon Town Planning Committee, Connecticut, January 1954), https://www.avonct.gov/planning-community-development/files/1956-pocd-maps-908; see also Bloomfield 1958 and West Hartford 1958 zoning map legends. Assume 1958 Bloomfield R-40 minimum lot width of 150 ft based on present-day requirements.↩︎

  2. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, “How One Bike Ride Inspired a Case That Could Upend CT’s Zoning Laws,” The CT Mirror, May 6, 2021, https://ctmirror.org/2021/05/06/woodbridge-zoning-multi-family-housing/.↩︎