Desegregation is the key to thriving suburbs
Over the weekend, Donald Trump claimed that Democrats would “abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs, after Tweeting last about a federal housing rule that he claims has had a “devasting impact on… once-thriving Suburban areas.” His inflammatory and segregationist views have no place in public discourse as the nation reels from the violence directed at black and brown bodies and collectively awakens to the reality of systemic racism.
The rule Trump was referring to is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 50-year-old “affirmatively further fair housing” rule — and, more specifically, the Obama-era implementation plan for this rule. The Obama administration required states, local governments, and housing authorities to take meaningful actions to overcome segregation and to address disparities in housing accessibility. This rule isn’t hurting the suburbs. Suburbs that don’t embrace this rule are hurting themselves.
American suburbs are not homogenous. Some are changing in important and unexpected ways: they are becoming more racially diverse, hosting growing immigrant populations, or building housing that can accommodate the poor. However, not all suburbs do their part to satisfy the HUD rule. We’ll call these the “exclusive” suburbs.
So how does the weak implementation of fair housing hurt such exclusive suburbs? Essential workers like teachers and firefighters may not be able to afford to live within the community. Kids grow up without cultural competencies that are achieved in diverse schools. Large lots create sprawl, pollute the environment, and make it more difficult to create social bonds between neighbors.
Few states have more varieties of the exclusive suburb than Connecticut. Our state is one of the most segregated, with the poorest cities in the country sitting amidst regions with vast wealth. Municipal fragmentation has created the framework for housing segregation.
Community regulation of land use — zoning — dictates what can be built in any community. And zoning is a significant driver of housing segregation.
In Connecticut, 60 of our 169 towns require 1 acre or more of land for a single-family home. Of these 60 towns, 50 towns have an average household that is above the median income. At least 25 towns prohibit multifamily housing entirely. In those that do allow it, 80 require more than one acre for any multifamily housing.
A related concept is lot coverage, which is the percentage of a lot that can be used for building. A low lot coverage percentage drives up development costs, and it essentially requires residents to drive cars — 35 of the 169 towns cap lot coverage at 25 percent. The average household in 30 of these towns sits above the median income line.
Most towns also require two parking spaces for each housing unit, and 17 towns, many of them wealthy, require more than two spaces for each unit. By requiring even more land per unit, these requirements drive up housing costs — making it difficult for apartment buildings to pencil out — and make people drive more.
Connecticut’s experience shows how zoning can erect barriers that make housing more expensive to the point that all but prohibits a diverse housing supply. In other words, many of our suburban communities aren’t doing their part to satisfy the HUD rule, which means they are contributing to segregation in the state.
The good news is that states can act, even if the Trump administration continues its efforts to unravel HUD’s affirmatively further fair housing rule. Localities generally get their power to zone from state legislatures, and Connecticut is no different.
Statewide reforms could change local zoning to enable more housing, diversify housing types, and improve processes to make decisions better and fairer. States could require local governments to adopt accessory dwelling units, enable “missing middle” housing, and eliminate barriers to multifamily housing in general.
Trump may only have a few months left in office. If elected, Joe Biden would likely fully reinstate Obama-era interpretations of this HUD rule, putting the country back on a path to desegregation that it should have embraced from the start.
Sara C. Bronin is an architect and law professor at the University of Connecticut. Bronin leads Desegregate Connecticut, a coalition of over 30 organizations addressing housing disparities.
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