Equity in education is not only about the financial resources in a school district or the dollars that flow to a classroom. Access to housing is also key to educational opportunity.
Families with children often decide where they will live based on the quality of the public school options in a community. In Connecticut, historically and today, local zoning and development ordinances are used to restrict many families from accessing high-performing and well-resourced school districts for their students.
Today, zoning is a tool to keep low-income families out of affluent, high opportunity communities, often under the unfounded pretext of “overcrowding schools” or “lowering property values”. When Connecticut’s towns use zoning laws to protect the “character” of their communities, it can be to the detriment of low-income and minority students.
Although state law requires local zoning regulations to promote housing choice and economic diversity in all Connecticut communities (C.G.S. 8-2)–it is simply not enforced.
According to Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, Bridgeport and Hartford rank in the ten metro areas with the worst (largest) housing cost gaps, and “each of the ten has a larger-than-average elementary school test score gap between low-income and middle/high-income students. In Bridgeport, the most extreme case [nationally], it is 3.5 times more expensive to live near a high-scoring school as a low-scoring school; would-be movers [families who choose to move] would have to spend about $25,000 more per year on housing to make that jump.”
How have Connecticut’s zoning laws enforced inequality?
By the numbers:
Exclusionary zoning is so common and so much a part of our municipalities’ way of doing business that:
Several high-opportunity towns have not built any affordable housing in nearly 3 decades.
Since 2011, 75% of new public housing has been in the 10 poorest CT communities, even though those 10 towns represent only 20% of the state’s housing stock.
During that same period, only 5% of new public housing was built in the state’s 10 wealthiest towns.
And, 37% of CT municipalities lack a housing authority to build or manage local public housing.
What is exclusionary zoning?
Suburban communities regularly include provisions in zoning ordinances that effectively prohibit the construction of affordable housing – this is exclusionary or anti-density zoning. Examples of anti-density zoning practices include:
Restricting the housing supply by requiring large lot sizes for houses (1 acre or 2 acre zoning);
Applying for state moratoriums to build new affordable housing;
Increasing housing prices; and
Reducing the local supply of multifamily units.
Exclusionary zoning practices like these, particularly in high opportunity municipalities, reinforce both economic and racial segregation and our significant and persistent academic achievement gap. These practices drive up the cost of developing affordable housing to the point that it becomes uneconomic.
What is inclusionary zoning?
In contrast, inclusionary zoning is a tool for local government officials to increase affordable housing supply while interspersing affordable units throughout a municipality or region. Its purpose is to broaden opportunity and foster mixed-income communities. Below are inclusionary zoning policies that state lawmakers could take action on in the 2020 legislative session:
Establishing statewide uniform zoning standards that all municipalities must adopt to generate more multifamily and affordable housing.
Promoting smaller and more affordable lots by minimizing rules that increase development costs, like lot size requirements.
Ensuring that affordable units are equally interspersed into the new development alongside market rate units.
Requiring every municipal Plan for Conservation and Development to incorporate inclusionary zoning policies.
Eliminating C.G.S. 8-2i, which allows developers to build affordable housing units offsite. Instead, require these units to be included on-site within the development.
Requiring that any multifamily, residential proposals that are approved by the Zoning Commission must include affordable units.
What policy action can be taken now to help our students succeed?
One option that demands action in the 2020 legislative session is to leverage the promise of a bonus in school construction to incentivize municipalities to:
Adopt inclusionary zoning policies, and
Take measurable efforts to build affordable housing before that municipality can receive a bonus/increase in their school construction reimbursement. Enacting inclusionary zoning policies locally will enable disadvantaged students to live in affluent communities with high-performing schools.
 Rothwell, Jonathan. “Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools,” Metropolitan Policy Program, Brookings, April 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/0419_school_inequality_rothwell.pdf.