In Fairfield County in Connecticut—ranked in some studies as the most unequal metropolitan area in the U.S.—$10 million homes on sprawling lots in Westport sit a short drive from rundown homes in the city of Bridgeport, where roughly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line.
As in many other parts of the county, the area is segregated by income and race in part because of restrictive zoning laws. An interactive map called the Connecticut Zoning Atlas, the first of its kind in the country, shows how much codes differ between towns.
“Zoning is the hidden power that dictates almost everything we do,” says Sara Bronin, an architect and the founder of Desegregate Connecticut, a coalition of volunteers and organizations that formed in mid-2020 to push for changes in land-use laws. “It tells us what kind of housing can be built where, and therefore has significant effects on our society, our economy, and on equity.”
The majority of the state, roughly 90%, is zoned for single-family housing. In seven towns, single-family housing is the only kind of housing allowed; in other areas, only some neighborhoods are carved out for apartment buildings. Only 2.2% of the land in the state is zoned for four units or more. Though it isn’t shown on the map, most towns require two parking spaces per housing unit, which makes construction more expensive. In addition, many towns require single-family houses to be built on an acre of land, adding to sprawl. And lengthy bureaucratic processes make it harder to build. All of this means that there are fewer housing options for lower-income families, and children growing up in those families are likely to miss out on the benefits that come from living in economically diverse neighborhoods.
The group looked at Connecticut’s zoning codes in detail, combing through more than 30,000 pages of codes in 180 jurisdictions. “We take a very data-driven approach to the reforms we’ve suggested,” Bronin says. “And we knew that it would be much better if we were suggesting reforms that were responsive to the conditions that actually existed.”
The advocates are backing a bill that would make it easier to build accessory dwelling units in the backyards of single-family homes, so lower-income renters can move into neighborhoods they couldn’t previously afford. The bill also proposes legalizing two-to-four-unit dwellings around main streets and legalizing four-unit dwellings near transit. “They’re relatively small scale, and we think compatible with existing neighborhoods around our main streets and transit stations, and towns have a lot of say over exactly how that gets articulated,” says Bronin. The changes are only a first step; towns may have to do more to encourage developers to build affordable housing. But in the long term, it can help. “We know that if you create more housing, overall, a market will become more affordable,” she says. “It’s economics 101.”
The atlas is designed both for policymakers and for anyone living in the state who wants to better understand how policies are shaping their communities. “We wanted to also make people question what kind of neighborhoods they live in,” says Ilya Ilyankou, a civic technologist who helped build the interactive map. “And what can be done to make it less sprawling, less suburban, more inclusive, and more vibrant.”