Racism and oligarchy aren't merely Blue/Red phenomena: Connecticut has had a Democratic legislature for 22 years and a Democratic governor for eight years, and it is one of the nation's most racially segregated, unequal states, divided into affluent, all-white cities and towns with virtually no affordable housing and poor, underserved towns primarily inhabited by racialized people, whose children are five times more likely to be imprisoned than the white children across the city line a few miles away.
The problem isn't new: 30 years ago, the Connecticut Supreme Court allowed the state to overrule local governments that refused planning permission for high-density, lower-cost homes. The state legislature used this freedom to pass bill 8-30g, which gives developers the powers to seek court orders overturning planning decisions that go against any development that include 30% low-income units.
Despite this, it's rare that developers manage to invoke the law, because the lengthy court battles associated with 8-30g challenges are a powerful disincentive (a case in Westport has been underway since 2005!). And some city governments claim that developers used threats of 8-30g challenges to win permission to build high-rise luxury condos: they say that developers demand permission for luxury condos on pain of having the building plan re-filed with 8-30g-compliant low-income housing, effectively threatening city governments with poor people if they don't get permission to build high-rise luxury housing.
Meanwhile, 8-30g is under sustained legislative assault, with the state legislature frequently introducing laws to weaken it.
Though the official rhetoric about keeping poor and brown people away from white enclaves isn't overtly racist, the dog-whistles are pretty loud, with claims that low-income housing would cut against the "character of the community" or reduce the "quality of the schools," or that the communities would become less "attractive and desirable" if low-income housing were built.
But in town meetings, the racism is a lot closer to the surface, such as William Woermer's testimony at a 2017 Branford planning meeting, where he warned about "drug addicts" and "riffraff" whose presence would require "security guards"; in Greenwich, resident Adam Tooter (recent owner of a $1.5m house) warned that poor people wouldn't be able to shop locally because the restaurants cost too much, a claim echoed by fellow Greenwicher Gayle DePoli, who testified that her concern was that poor people would only be able to afford pizza and Dunkin' Donuts, and would be priced out of the neighborhood's gourmet ice-cream parlour.
Some city officials haven't gotten the memo about keeping their racism in coded messages: Oxford First Selectman George Temple publicly worried that parking congestion during Cinco de May celebrations would impede emergency vehicles.
When zoning fails to prevent affordable housing from being built, white, wealthy towns have another tactic: buying up plots of land that are likely to turn into affordable housing and keeping them off the market. Though towns deny doing this, developers say it's routine, and this is backed up by public records requests.
Though the white, wealthy towns won't let poor people live there, they rely on them to do low-waged work; the long commutes and poor services endured by these workers means that there's enormous pent-up demand for low-cost housing within these exclusive communities.
In Westport, the housing authority's wait list hasn't been opened in three years, but it still gets daily calls looking for housing, seven days a week. The last time it opened, in 2016, it got 1,000 applications in 30 days. It has not re-opened since.
"Is safety genuinely 100% the fear or is there something else at play and the reason why these projects aren't moving forward," he said. "Let's drill down for a second. Every one of those towns has housing on a street that doesn't have a sidewalk. The difference being that those are single-family homes which are not affordable."
All of this pushback is code for not allowing in poor people, says Hollister, the land-use attorney.
"Does anybody say we need to keep blacks and Hispanics out of Westport? No, but they talk about property values, safety and preserving open space — all the things that a town can do to prevent development that would bring up a more economically and racially diverse housing population," Hollister said. "They don't use the overt racial terms, but it's absolutely clear to everybody in the room that's what they're talking about."
Separated by Design: How Some of America's Richest Towns Fight Affordable Housing [Jacqueline Rabe Thomas/ProPublica]