Fair Housing Month: Equitable and Affordable Housing through Zoning Reform
Apr 23, 2021
In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed, prohibiting housing discrimination and promising an end to segregation in communities across the United States. To commemorate its passage, April is designated as Fair Housing Month. It recognizes the importance of inclusion and diversity in every neighborhood and reminds us that everyone has the right to a safe, stable and affordable place to call home.
Progress has been made in the more than 50 years since the Fair Housing Act made it illegal to discriminate against people in the buying, selling, renting or financing of housing, yet disparities still exist. In his recent proclamation on Fair Housing Month, President Biden acknowledged that there is a continued need for higher quality and lower-cost housing and that Black and Latinx households are disproportionately impacted by the country’s housing crisis. The current administration has already begun to draft policies that ensure fair housing for all, but much work remains.
How does Fairfield County compare to other communities?
Fairfield County has earned a reputation as a wonderful place to live. Its picturesque landscapes, top school districts, and proximity to New York City are just some of the factors that make its communities appealing to so many. But these attributes come at a price not everyone can afford, a stark reality evident in Fairfield County’s wide income gap and high home values, both of which surpass state and national averages. The annual income needed for a two-bedroom apartment at fair market rent in Fairfield County is well above state and national levels and the area has the largest gap in need vs. supply of housing units available for its lowest-income households.
The annual income needed for a 2-bedroom rental in parts of Fairfield County is almost $30,000 more than the average for Connecticut and $35,000 more than the nation’s average. 3
In addition to income disparities and a shortage of affordable housing, many communities in Fairfield County lack diversity. In its February 2021 Fairfield County Housing Needs Assessment, Regional Plan Association (RPA) said, “Fairfield County communities are highly segregated by race with a predominance of white people living in suburban communities and people of color primarily living in urban communities.”4
Racial inequality is also demonstrated in the number of Fairfield County households that pay more than 30% of their income on housing. A higher percentage of Black (55%) and Latinx (57%) residents are cost-burdened or severely cost-burdened compared to white residents (34%).5 The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated these disparities: loss of wages has impacted the number of households that have difficulty paying their rent or mortgage and a highly competitive market has driven up housing prices, squeezing out lower-income potential buyers.
What’s being done to improve access to fair housing?
A long and complicated history of socioeconomic and racial inequality, discriminatory housing policies and restrictive zoning regulations have contributed to persistent barriers to fair housing, making the path to improving the nationwide housing crisis a challenging one. Organizations and advocacy groups throughout Connecticut are dedicated to tackling the issue through research, education, and policy development. One important facet of this work is the support of zoning reform at the state and local level.
Partnership for Strong Communities (PSC), an organization that helped form Fairfield County’s Center for Housing Opportunity
in 2019 with Fairfield County’s Community Foundation, RPA, and Supportive Housing Works, is working toward improving fair housing through its HOMEConnecticut Campaign.
As part of its legislative agenda, PSC has advocated for several bills that address zoning reform. These, along with other important bills related to zoning and housing, have been the topic of much debate, even eliciting a 24-hour public hearing in mid-March.
The state legislature’s Planning and Development Committee recently acted on several of these bills, although more changes are likely as they move through the legislative process.
House Bill 6107
This bill seeks to clarify the Zoning Enabling Act and requires that zoning regulations promote the purposes of the Fair Housing Act. It also removes the words “character of the district” as a consideration for zoning regulations and establishes a working group at the state level to guide municipalities’ compliance with required fair housing plans.
Senate Bill 1026
This bill is concerned with training requirements for planning and zoning commissioners so that they are equipped with the necessary knowledge to make decisions that impact their communities.
House Bill 6611
Also known as the Fair Share Zoning Bill, HB 6611 looks at each region’s need for affordable housing and then allocates part of that need to each municipality, requiring them to develop a plan to meet their goal.
Senate Bill 1024
The most extensive, and perhaps the most amended from its original form, this bill covers a broad range of topics related to zoning and land use. As passed by the committee, SB 1024 would permit accessory apartments, limit required parking spaces, and update traffic and sewer standards. It creates a working group to develop design guidelines that municipalities could choose to use or adjust to meet their needs. It also calls for zoning regulations to consider physical and architectural characteristics, rather than the “character of the district.”
Supporters of these bills hope that less restrictive zoning will lead to more affordable housing and desegregate communities in the state so that all residents can live, work, and raise their families with equal access to opportunity. While the work is ongoing and will require sustained advocacy, it is a crucial step toward achieving fair housing for all.