During the summer of 1944, a 15-year-old Martin Luther King worked on a tobacco farm in Simsbury, Connecticut. In letters home to his parents, the future civil rights leader wrote about his astonishment at being able to go to church alongside white parishioners, or being able to eat at Hartford’s finest restaurants without any trouble. Many years later, in his autobiography, he pointed out how this stay changed his worldview, making clear the enormous burden of segregation.
Two years ago, the good folks of Simsbury took an important step to honor Dr. King’s legacy in our state. They approved in a referendum, with more than eighty percent approval, for the town to purchase the 288-acre parcel of land. 130 acres will be set aside for recreation; 120 as working farmland; two will be kept for historic preservation purposes, telling the story of the property.
There are a few small details, however, that make this heartwarming story much less appealing. About two decades ago, that idyllic farmland was purchased by a developer with the intention of building 300 houses on the plot. The plan was met with the traditional barrage of litigation, red tape, zoning commission wrangling, and upset residents claiming that any construction whatsoever would have a terrible impact on traffic, wetlands, town character, and property values. The historical preservation of MLK’s legacy was a fine addition to the normal list of excuses about much-needed housing construction in our state. It proved to be the winning argument against building housing in a wealthy Hartford suburb. The farmland was preserved, and Simsbury will honor our great civil rights hero by ensuring it remains incredibly wealthy, supremely unaffordable, and has a 1% Black resident population.
In a way, keeping a massive plot of land empty in one of Connecticut’s toniest suburbs truly honors Dr. King’s legacy in the best possible way, as our state has kept up a vibrant tradition of housing segregation for decades. Simsbury has been more egregious than most, furiously denying any affordable housing project within their town limits, with a truly breathtaking catalog of excuses to block development (need for a traffic signal, lack of play space for children, need to build sewers, impact of septic tanks, mere existence of children, to name a few), but it is far from unique in its fierce opposition to getting anything (affordable or not) built within the town limits. They are not even the most blatant in their use of tax dollars to block development; Orange and Woodbridge outright purchased golf courses to keep any new development out; Darien bought a 60-acre island for $85 million for the same exact reason.
In most cases, towns do not need to resort to these kinds of measures to ensure that Connecticut remains one of the most segregated states in the nation. They can block new housing development and preserve economic, social, and racial segregation by judicious use of restrictive zoning, relying on one-acre lots, parking minimums, and single-family housing to keep housing unaffordable. If any developer, against their best judgment, decides to brave the elements and try to build a project, they can then resort to endless rounds of board approvals, variances, amendments, studies, and red tape, paired with all kinds of senseless litigation until they go away.
Most of the actors engaged in these tactics are certainly well-intentioned. Their concerns about traffic, preserving open spaces, wetlands, noise, or “town character” (whatever that means) might be sincere, even if they are overblown. However, when every single town engages in these practices, the end result is both extraordinary levels of residential segregation and very little new housing across the state. Exclusionary zoning is at the core of both our extreme levels of income and wealth inequality and our ever-rising housing costs.
The good news is that solving this problem does not require any money: we just need to let people build more housing. Any kind of housing, anywhere that makes sense and there is real demand for it. Both affordable housing, in any shape, size, and form (apartments, condos, triple deckers, townhouses, single loaded corridor buildings, anything) and more expensive housing for those who can afford it.
Back in 1944, MLK marveled at the chance to be able to go anywhere, visit any venue, worship in any church in Connecticut. It is darkly hilarious that decades later, “living anywhere you want” remains out of reach for many in our state. Preserving our town character, indeed.