Race, Zoning, and Affordable Housing in Madison
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on the effect of zoning on race in Madison.
Madison’s population is about 94 percent White, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared to around 75 percent in the state of Connecticut. Fewer than 100 Black people call Madison home. While the state has become more diverse in population over time, Madison’s numbers haven’t budged.
After the nation faced a reckoning this summer with stark examples of police brutality and systemic racism prompting demonstrations in thousands of cities and towns across every state, including in Madison, many people are seeking to find explanations for some of these persistent inequalities that continue to plague the country, the state, and the town.
The issue is seemingly simple: Anyone who can afford a mortgage or rent can live in Madison, regardless of race. There is a kind of de-facto segregation, however, that has preserved affluent, suburban towns and their high-performing school districts and opportunities for upward mobility, but leaves the vast majority of Black and non-White people living in more densely populated urban areas without these important advantages. These barriers includes profiling and other forms of discrimination.
Banks in Connecticut have been sued—most recently Liberty Bank, which was forced to change its policies in 2019—for allegedly steering Black and non-White people away from certain programs and refusing to serve majority non-White communities for home loan programs. Black families are denied home loans more than twice as often as White families, according to a 2018 study by real estate website Zillow.
Regardless of intent, another instrument that has maintained homogeneity in wealthy White communities is zoning regulations.
Zoning regulations and the manner they are enforced and applied can be used for a number of purposes, just like any other tool. While there are substantial public interest and important reasons to set restrictions on types of development that might harm the environment or create long-term issues in the layouts of towns, these same tools have for decades been used in a way that ensures Connecticut’s rich White towns stay that way, mostly through preventing the creation of affordable housing, according to Director of Operations of Connecticut Fair Housing Center Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens.
“We always look at the development of affordable housing as the most effective and least expensive way to integrate our predominantly White communities,” Darby-Hudgens said.
There are many types of affordable housing, and many definitions for what qualifies as affordable, with many towns making their own and drawing their own regulations. The state of Connecticut defines “affordable housing” as housing that costs 30 percent of a person or household’s annual income, when that income is equal or less than the median of the town.
Around 65 percent of Black and Hispanic Connecticut residents rent rather than own their living spaces, according to Darby-Hudgeons. 60 percent of Black and Hispanic Connecticut residents cannot afford fair-market rent, according to the Fair Housing Center, compared to 36 percent of White residents, making the lack of affordable housing disproportionately affect people of color.
Because Black and Hispanic families are much less likely to be able to afford fair market rents or mortgages, zoning regulations and zoning boards that make sure assisted or deed-restricted units never get built effectively ensures those people cannot live in that town, Darby-Hudgens said, meaning that even if the intention isn’t discriminatory, the effect clearly is.
Though the state has set a goal for every town to make 10 percent of its housing stock affordable, Madison has fallen woefully short—in fact, decreasing its total percentage of affordable units over the last 15 years or so.
Between 2002 and 2019, the town added a net of four affordable housing units, now sitting at 136, or 1.69 percent of the town’s housing stock.
For many years, Madison residents have resisted any movement toward adding affordable housing, with many legitimate concerns focusing on issues like traffic, commercialization, or potential tax impacts. But often pushback to affordable housing centers on imagery or fears not grounded in reality, according to Darby-Hudgens—things like crime, litter, or noise. These fears are often the product of racist biases, Darby-Hudgens said, and are rarely, if ever, reflective of these kinds of developments or the people who live in them.
With the degree of segregation in Connecticut towns and a new recognition of how racism is written into laws and codes, there is a hope among advocates that towns like Madison can take part in inclusive and diversifying efforts in their communities. Because state law gives municipalities broad authority over their own zoning practices, local elected officials and voters can do a lot on their own without waiting on action in Hartford.
Just last month, the Board of Selectmen indicated its is planning to offer tax breaks to an affordable housing community in the east side of town, totaling almost 31 units. That project received broad support from the community and town officials, according to the developer
But according to local legislators, discussions to potentially change how zoning and affordable housing are handled has gained traction at the state level, pushing to either further incentivize or find other methods to enforce equitable housing practices. Madison’s Planning & Zoning Commission recently recommended convening an ad-hoc committee to address affordable housing, in part because the state is requiring every town to adopt a long-term plan for affordable housing by 2022.
Though zoning regulations and practices unquestionably contribute to racial and economic segregation to some degree, towns like Madison simultaneously have a right and a responsibility to shape their communities in a thoughtful way. Higher density development can bring with it many problems, notably traffic and safety issues, and corresponding expenses borne by local taxpayers. Younger people who are also more likely to rent or live in affordable housing units are also more likely to have school-age children, whose education is funded predominantly by local taxpayers. There are also possible opportunity costs for every affordable housing development, as market-rate or other types of development can often add more value to the Grand List.
While town officials and state policymakers seek to address all these issues from a variety of perspectives and methods, zoning codes and how they are enforced continue to have an outsized impact on making Madison and the state as a whole an equitable place. In the coming weeks, The Source will explore more in-depth how the town has formulated its zoning and how it has shaped the community, and what the future might look like.