NEW HAVEN — An affordable housing advocacy group announced a civil rights lawsuit against the Town of Woodbridge on Wednesday, alleging that its zoning regulations violate the state’s housing laws as well as civil rights clauses of the state Constitution.
“Woodbridge is emblematic of the kind of exclusionary zoning we see in many towns all across the state. But it also presents some particularly stark aspects of that, given its proximity to New Haven, given how small a percent of its residential land area allows any kind of small scale density,” said Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, a Connecticut-based civil rights nonprofit that advocates for fair housing.
The town’s policies prohibit multifamily housing of three or more units on 98.4 percent of the town’s residential land while requiring “burdensome special exception review” for the remaining 1.6 percent of land for all forms of multifamily housing, according to a release from Open Communities Alliance.
The plaintiffs include Open Communities Trust, LLC, an affordable housing development trust created by Open Communities Alliance, that has the option to buy property in Woodbridge for building an affordable multifamily project. The owner of the property, 2 Orchard Road LLC, is also a plaintiff in the suit, along with two Woodbridge residents, Sally Connolly and Cary Gross, “who are harmed by the lack of racial and economic diversity in their town,” according to the release.
The suit claims that Woodbridge’s zoning violates the state’s Zoning Enabling Act and Fair Housing Act, as well as the due process, equal protection, and anti-segregation clauses of the state Constitution.
According to the release, Woodbridge has violated all of these laws “by barring a wide variety of multifamily housing in a manner that particularly harms Black and Latino families and households relying on government subsidized housing, all of whom have disproportionately lower incomes and therefore a greater need for affordable housing compared to white households.” The town’s “restrictive zoning also denies current residents the opportunity to live in a diverse community.”
“What we are contending is a constellation of policies that Woodbridge has implemented for decades and is the reason for that very stark line between Woodbridge and New Haven, and state law actually requires such policies be eradicated. So we have brought this litigation to ensure that all the relevant state laws designed to promote housing diversity and make sure that each town is contributing to the need for affordable housing in its region, etc., are being followed,” Boggs told CT Examiner.
The town has 43 affordable units, including five single family homes with low-cost state mortgages, adding up to 1.24 percent of the town’s 3,418 total housing units. Boggs said the goal is 1,842 affordable units to be built over 20 years, with rents up to 80 percent of the Area Median Income, according to the Open Alliance fairshare formula.
In September 2020, Open Communities Alliance submitted a proposal to amend the zoning codes in Woodbridge. In June 2021, the town’s Plan and Zoning Commission voted to allow accessory dwelling units townwide and two-family dwellings townwide with limitations concerning watershed protection and access to public water and sewer.
The proposal called for townwide approval of multi-family units by a regular zoning permit without a public hearing or commission review, but the commission voted to allow multi-family housing, with or without an affordable component, only in areas with public sewer and water by special exception.
Since then “Woodbridge has taken no meaningful action to meet its legal responsibility to plan and zone in a way that accommodates a fair portion of its region’s need for affordable housing,” according to the Open Communities Alliance website, which led to the civil rights lawsuit.
Boggs said that satisfying the lawsuit would require “meaningful and thoughtful rezoning” throughout the residential zones in town, as well as remedial actions, for example, the donation of town-owned land for mixed income housing, the creation of the housing trust fund, and the expansion of water and sewer.
“All of these things are just some examples of steps that the town could take to address this fact that for generations that has limited where affordable housing can go into town, or whether it can be built at all,” she said.
Boggs told CT Examiner that the litigation against Woodbridge also confronts the argument of many towns that denser housing cannot be built because of a lack of or limited access to water and sewer infrastructure
“Those kinds of assumptions aren’t grounded in real science and environmental assessments. They’re sort of blanket policies that don’t consider what could actually be built in different parts of town given the soils and environmental considerations,” she said.
She said the alliance feels “very firmly” that protecting the environment is critically important, but that protection shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to allow, for example, small-scale multi-family housing that can be built safely — from an environmental and health perspective — in parts of towns that don’t have public water and sewer.
The litigation also addresses the issue of advancing affordable housing piecemeal — one project at a time — which is how the 8-30g statute works, Boggs said.
“What this suit seeks is town wide changes so that there doesn’t have to be a legal battle in court every single time an affordable housing or multi family housing proposal comes along. That just adds to the cost of doing such housing and makes it much less likely that such much needed developments would be built,” she said.
Boggs said that even without income restrictions, if Woodbridge allowed four units on an acre and a half — which she described as a kind of “missing middle” community — then the units were likely to be more affordable than a single family house on a large lot.
“But part of this is just about rezoning housing that is already built,” she said.
Boggs said it wasn’t necessary to require two-acre lots to build housing — or the lot size can remain the same if the town allows greater density.
“It’s something of a ‘rezone and the developers will come approach,’ which we know works. If you change what’s possible, then what is built will be different,” she said.
Woodbridge First Selectman Beth Heller did not return CT Examiner’s request for comment.