Daniel Zhao, Senior Photographer

Over the course of just over a week, Mayor Justin Elicker’s statements in support of several state zoning bills have alienated Republican representatives and prompted calls for an apology from politicians and residents. But the mayor, who claims the legislation is instrumental in the fight to dismantle municipal housing segregation, is standing his ground.

S.B. 1024 is a zoning bill which would lead to the creation of more affordable housing units around transportation hubs and downtown areas in Connecticut municipalities. Ramping up housing in these areas, said Elicker, is good for the environment, allows increased access to jobs and would prevent cities “from isolating potential affordable housing in a remote area of the community.” 

But some Connecticut towns say their needs are different from those of urban centers like New Haven and Hartford. Residents of Greenwich, for example, have complained that they want to control “the character” of their towns’ neighborhoods, and S.B. 1024 would get in the way of that.  

On Mar. 15 at a daylong hearing hosted by the Connecticut General Assembly’s Planning and Development Committee, Elicker said that towns like Greenwich use zoning laws to segregate their residents, and that zoning legislation such as S.B. 1024 could help combat that.

“I think that there may be some fear about the unknown, and of the idea that legislation like this may have more of an impact than what it in reality will have,” Elicker told the News. “I think that this is an opportunity for us as a state, given the fact that many more people are having conversations about systemic racism and income inequality, to do something practical to address segregation.”

The contents of S.B. 1024 are largely based on a platform built by Desegregate CT, “a coalition of neighbors and nonprofits who believes in creating abundant, diverse housing in service of equity, inclusive prosperity, and a cleaner environment,” according to their website. Their platform involves revitalizing main streets through centralized housing and increasing construction of Accessory Dwelling Units, which are small housing units that are “naturally affordable” given their size and which are geared specifically to seniors and young adults. The platform also focuses on transit-oriented development — specifically with a demand that over half of the area directly surrounding transportation hubs be occupied with housing containing at least four units.

While the bill has been met with skepticism from many lawmakers, Elicker’s support for it has raised especially notable backlash from politicians and state residents given his assertions that some Connecticut towns have segregatory zoning laws.

At the hearing, several representatives, including Greenwich’s Kimberly Fiorello, asked Elicker for justification of his claims, arguing that the mayor didn’t have concrete evidence that Greenwich uses legislation to segregate residents.

“Are you under the impression that Greenwich is all white?” Fiorello asked Elicker. “Greenwich is very diverse, as our first selectman attested. It’s 27 percent nonwhite. Is that not enough? You made an incredible accusation against my town, and I’d like to understand how to wrap my mind around it. Please, enlighten me.”

Other towns were also criticized for their exclusionary zoning practices by proponents of the bill. Karen Anderson LAW ’21 testified in support of the legislation and highlighted Woodbridge’s “exclusionary zoning” practices as evidence that statewide zoning policy is important. Anderson pointed out that out of Woodbridge’s over 13,000 housing units, only 13 of them are affordable and do not include age restrictions for residents. S.B. 6611, another bill debated at the hearing, would set up a “Fair Share” zoning system that would effectively mandate certain levels of affordable housing in Connecticut towns.

“Connecticut law does already require local zoning regulations to encourage multi-family and affordable housing for residents of the region,” she said. “But without enforceable plans, many suburbs have simply refused to do their fair share. [Woodbridge] is a suburb that neighbors New Haven and is much whiter and much wealthier than the surrounding region. A major driver of this segregation is Woodbridge’s exclusionary zoning.”

Those from Greenwich are not only concerned about allegations of racist zoning practices. As Michael Basham wrote in an op-ed in Greenwich Time, many residents do not believe the state should have the ability to levy any blanket regulations on zoning. 

“Our town is best positioned to meet the worthy goal of affordable housing and the desire to ‘preserve our community character’ without ‘one-size fits all’ mandates from Hartford,” Basham wrote.

Others have claimed that the legislation would “citify” the suburbs. However, Elicker responded to the News that these claims are extreme.

“I think that’s an overdramafication of what actually will occur,” Elicker said. “The legislation has been modified and made more moderate in order to take into consideration some of the concerns of suburban communities. The components of this [bill] are not radical, they’re not likely to change any town in our state in a significant way.”

Last week, the Greenwich Sentinel published an editorial asking for an apology from mayor Elicker.

“This is a serious accusation,” the editorial board wrote, referring to Elicker’s claims. “When asked for evidence, Mr. Elicker could provide none. His comments were baseless and inflammatory. He should apologize to the Greenwich P&Z Commission. As an elected official, he should know better.”

But on Twitter, Elicker shared that he “will not apologize.” He also noted that Connecticut is an especially segregated state. Cities including the Elm City, he said, are working to address housing segregation, but others “are fighting to protect zoning regulations that perpetuate structural racism.”

Elicker further stated his claims through an op-ed published in the Stamford Advocate, where he noted that zoning “has historically been used alongside racially restrictive covenants and redlining to keep people separated.”

The mayor also told the News that the bill would not alter New Haven zoning laws in too many ways because the Elm City — where housing affordability remains a significant challenge — is already “in compliance.” But he said that because New Haven has significantly more affordable housing than surrounding towns, sometimes Nutmeggers from outside the city are on Elm City Communities’ waiting list, and this legislation could help these residents access affordable housing where they’re already living.

“It would alleviate pressure on New Haven by providing more opportunities in surrounding municipalities across the state for affordable units, so that would be a good thing for our residents to provide more opportunities for more economic and social mobility,” Elicker said. “But it would also provide opportunities for residents of other cities and towns who are on our housing authority waiting list because there isn’t enough affordable housing in their own town.”

During the state hearing, Elicker said that 30 percent of those on the New Haven Housing Authority’s waiting list are from outside New Haven.

Owen Tucker-Smith | owen.tucker-smith@yale.edu

OWEN TUCKER-SMITH
Owen Tucker-Smith covers the Mayor's office, City Hall and local politics. He is also an associate editor at the Yale Daily News Magazine. Originally from Williamstown, MA, he is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College majoring in statistics and data science.