Editorial: Is Zoning a Promise?

in Editorials

To hear Stonington resident Laura Graham tell it, in Joe Wojtas’ coverage for The Day of a July 8 hearing of the Stonington Planning and Zoning Commission, “Zoning is a promise … When a family puts their life savings in a home they count on town officials to protect them.”

It should surprise none of our readers that Connecticut was among the very first states to make that promise, when the Connecticut General Assembly passed a law in 1917 enabling towns to elect planning commissions.

It was a promise later upheld by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Windsor v. Whitney in 1920. The court reasoned that “one of the principal purposes of zoning is to stabilize property values … where a municipality has established a zoning system, each citizen of that municipality should be entitled to use and develop his property in reliance upon the fact that the use of other properties in the vicinity will continue to be held within the bounds of the zoning plan.”

And a promise that was affirmed in 1926 by the United States Supreme Court in Euclid vAmbler.

In any consideration of zoning, we must start with that very ancient principle inherent in Anglo-Saxon law … that no man’s property may be taken for public use without compensation. That guarantee … applies not only to prevent the actual taking of possession of it, but it also protects him against any substantial deprivation of such use as he cares to make of it.

So is that the last word?

No.

Over the last three decades this promise has been called into question by a diverse assortment of advocates, developers and elected officials — it’s a conversation that has gradually broadened from a more focused criticism of the evident lack of progress in the North to solve problems of segregation and inequitable schooling, to a generational conversation about declining expectations, and opportunities, a rejection of suburbia.

Although I hesitate to conflate so many ideas together, these threads have coalesced to an extent into what’s called YIMBY — Yes In My Backyard. It’s a movement which doesn’t just question value and the equity of zoning, it questions the fundamental public good of homeownership as an investment. To quote Joe Cortright, a writer for City Observatory:

…there’s an inherent contradiction between the goals of promoting housing affordability and using homeownership as a wealth building strategy. Affordability requires that housing be stable in price; a good investment needs to appreciate. If housing is a great investment, it’s because it’s becoming less affordable.  If housing stays affordable, it is, by definition, not an investment that generates gains.

“Homeownership for whom?” Alex Backa asks in Strong Towns, an influential voice in housing and zoning reform:

Buying a house means not just hoarding wealth, if you’re lucky, but buying into the reality that your ZIP code essentially determines your fate; that redlining as encoded by the federal government’s Home Owner’s Loan Corporation is alive and well; that with the aid of de jure and de facto housing segregation, our schools reflect white America’s preference to be around people who look like us.

In a 2010 news article in the Norwich Bulletin, spurred by a special issue of The Connecticut Economy: A University of Connecticut Quarterly Review, James Mosher raised questions of whether “people who look like us” is also another way of saying “old”:

…zoning laws in some towns bar or slow construction of multifamily homes that might appeal to entry-level workers, who tend to be young. The workers, who might have remained in Connecticut after graduating from school, cannot find housing within their budgets and leave the state.

Given that the Connecticut economy revolves to a great extent on housing values and property taxes — has a population that is older than average — and a Fairfield-County-driven heyday that in part defined suburbanism, it’s no surprise that our state is ground zero for a great many of these questions and conflicts. Connecticut is a state with extraordinary disparities of wealth and opportunity.

So… is zoning a promise? Well, clearly so. Is it a promise best kept? Well, it’s complicated.