To Defeat Exclusive Zoning, Stop Failing at Poverty

Chris Powell


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Maybe Connecticut should be grateful to the Desegregate CT organization for having just provided a map detailing how local zoning regulations make it almost impossible to build multifamily housing in most of the state. But didn’t nearly everybody already know that in principle? After all, the roots of exclusive zoning in the state go back to colonial times, when no one was permitted to live in the earliest towns without being approved at a town meeting as an “admitted inhabitant” and anyone who tried to move in without approval was “warned out.”

Then as now the objective of this selectivity was economic rather than racial — to guard against the public expense of supporting people who could not support themselves. While poverty and race are correlated today, poverty remains the far greater problem even as it gets little official attention.

Connecticut’s Republicans seem to welcome the zoning issue, reflexively defending “local control” and “the character of our towns,” euphemisms for exclusion and keeping out not just the poor but even self-supporting people getting started in adult life. The Republicans know that the suburbs are full of people who left or avoid the cities precisely to get away from their pathologies of poverty and don’t want it following them. But the Republicans won’t distinguish between the slackers and the self-supporting, and they don’t care about solving the poverty problem. They want only to keep it at bay.

Connecticut’s Democrats don’t care much about solving the problem either. Their objective is just to spread it around. Their latest idea is to authorize city housing authorities to build multifamily housing in the suburbs, pre-empting local zoning, as if the suburbs should be enthusiastic about gaining people the cities want to get rid of. Republicans might secretly wish for enactment of such legislation, for it could lead to the defeat of any suburban Democratic legislators who voted for it. Suburban Democratic legislators long have been the crucial resistance to curbing exclusive zoning.

Is anyone in authority in Connecticut interested in discovering what causes poverty and what lifts people out of it? Does anyone in authority here even notice that government policy has only turned the cities into poverty factories?

Educational failure is a cause of poverty, and an education-oriented solution was offered recently by the 2018 Republican candidate for governor, Bob Stefanowski, and by columnist and sometime Republican candidate Joe Bentivegna — school vouchers allowing parents to get their children out of poor-performing neighborhood schools. But Connecticut already does much of this with “magnet” schools, and they have caused their own problems.

For the “magnet” schools do what vouchers would: drain neighborhood schools of their better, more-parented students, worsening the performance of neighborhood schools.

Connecticut’s many unparented children are the main driver of the flight from the cities. Unparented children are where educational failure and crime come from. The Democratic response to this problem lately has been to try to exclude the public from criminal trials and erase criminal records — to make it harder for people to know what’s going on around them. Fortunately two federal court decisions have nullified Connecticut’s law requiring secret trials for juveniles charged with the worst crimes. Legislation still may be enacted to erase criminal records, but this will only camouflage the problem.

There is no getting around the child neglect and abuse causing poverty.

But there might be a generally acceptable solution to zoning exclusivity: requiring all towns to facilitate owner-occupied multi-family housing, accompanied by state mortgage assistance to purchasers who are employed, a system of starter homes routing working people toward the middle class.

This is how Singapore has solved its income inequality and ethnic segregation problems — by arranging for nearly everyone to own his home, to assure that everyone has property. Such policy is a theme of the beloved movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the idea goes back to the old Catholic social philosophy called distributism.

In any case, since housing is a necessity of life, the rising housing prices now being celebrated in Connecticut should not be celebrated any more than rising prices for food. To the contrary, they should be redressed.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.