Photos of Sara C. Bronin, the Thomas F. Gallivan, Jr. Chair of Real Property Law, taken Thursday, September 28, 2017 at the UConn School of Law in Hartford. (G.J. McCarthy / UConn Foundation)

Sara Bronin Steps Down After 7 Years on Hartford’s Planning and Zoning Commission, Sets Sights on Housing Statewide

“Zoning first arose 100 years ago in the 1920s to help to order the city, to separate uses from each other and frankly to separate people from people,” said Sara Bronin. “While Connecticut did not have explicit racial zoning like many Southern cities did, the effects of Connecticut zoning laws have been no less discriminatory in effect.” 

Bronin, an architect and law professor at the University of Connecticut, has stepped down as chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the City of Hartford, in part to work with DesegregateCT, a coalition of more than thirty organizations focused on statewide land use reform as a tool to fight discrimination. 

According to Bronin, who spoke by phone on July 28, land use practices on the basis of income — minimum lot sizes and home sizes — segregated Connecticut by race.

“We already know what Connecticut would look like without any zoning because many of our towns developed up until the 1920s without zoning. You look at how they chose to order themselves, usually centered around the town green or the town [institution], usually having commercial corridors, like a main street where buildings were occupied by retail stores or restaurants or other commercial establishments.”

Towns developed before the 1920s had multiple types of residential living spaces, called “middle housing” by housing advocates, that included apartments over retail establishments, duplexes, four-plexes, six-plexes, multi-unit buildings and cottages. 

“Historic town centers have the kind of development that would benefit people who would prefer to walk to places that they shop or work or eat,” Bronin said. “We’ve zoned out residential living on top of retail in our historic main street and we need to bring that back in order to make the historical main street more vibrant.”

Bronin said commonsense places to build middle housing are around historic town centers and transit centers, including train stations, large bus terminals or ferry terminals. 

Rethinking zoning

During Bronin’s seven years on Hartford’s Planning & Zoning Commission, the city adopted a form-based zoning code that won the 2020 Driehaus Award from Smart Growth America and the Form-Based Codes Institute. 

Form-based zoning emphasizes physical form and architectural building types as well as the scale and siting of buildings. Conventional zoning regulations focus on separation of uses and include setback, size and height restrictions, but not the appearance of the building. 

“What form-based zoning does is it sets out clearly what types of development we want to see in each neighborhood and it also gives people who live in those neighborhoods a sense of predictability and a sense that something incompatible won’t be built there,” she said. 

According to Bronin, form-based codes can allow a town to keep a town’s architectural identity while also providing affordable housing opportunities.

“When you look at people who talk about ‘community character’ in some places around the state as really a code word for racism and classism, you might look at the form-based code as a way to get architectural character, but not to do that at the exclusion of equity,” she said. 

Bronin said that the Hartford Planning and Zoning Commission has worked to balance inclusion with sound planning practices. The city now allows more flexible types of housing, including the construction of row houses, which were historically part of Hartford housing stock but were not allowed under the existing building codes.

Under the new codes, the city also allows accessory dwelling units, or ADUs — independent living units located on the same plot as a single family house. ADUs are also part of the DesegregateCT platform, described by the group as an “affordable, easy way to create housing diversity within cities and to integrate high-cost towns.” 

“Having the ability to have an accessory dwelling unit here in Hartford has helped keep some seniors in their homes. What that means is they have an income stream, they can monitor it right on their property and they pay [into] equity,” she said. “That doesn’t just go for seniors, it goes for all kinds of families.

The idea, said Bronin, is to open up zoning — to renters and homeowners — so that it reduces the cost of entering a particular community, which will enable people to access the communities where they want to live.

Municipal fragmentation

Of the state’s 169 municipalities, 167 have their own zoning regulations, which Bronin said can vary widely.  

“What that means is it’s difficult to figure out from one community to another what rules are. It makes it harder for people to build housing. It also means that we as a state don’t have any coherent vision for the role of housing because it’s basically delegated to all of these local actors,” she said. “Zoning commissions all over the state have tremendous power. They’re usually responsible for making millions — if not hundreds of millions — of dollars of development decisions, usually without any training whatsoever.”

On the “top 10” list of priorities for DesegregateCT is the requirement of four hours of training per year — including education in fair housing — for municipal land use commissioners.

“It does the people that the [commissioners] represent a real disservice when they’re making decisions based on emotion or based on fear sometimes, rather than good planning principles and principles of fair housing,” said Bronin.

In the immediate term, Desegregate Connecticut is not advocating for statewide zoning, according to Bronin, but the concept is on the group’s list of “big ideas”

“If we really wanted to promote equitable and clear standards across the board [while also promoting] economic development, it would be really smart of Connecticut to have zoning codes developed … in a way that goes beyond simply local government,” she said. 

The results of zoning changes are likely to appear slowly because updated codes only affect new development, she said. 

“It does take some time for the effects of a zoning code to be felt on a community. With the changes in Hartford, I expect the dividends to really show up in 15 to 20 years,” she said.

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