When President Joe Biden took office, his administration inherited an unresolved complaint and lawsuit that civil rights attorneys filed last fall, charging that Connecticut’s housing laws — which leave most decisions to local officials — are harmful to Black and Latino residents.
Now, while U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Justice determine if the state is violating federal fair housing laws — by limiting where Section 8 housing vouchers can be used and where affordable housing can be developed — state lawmakers for the fourth consecutive year are considering whether to tackle the issue before the federal government decides whether to step in.
“While we are focused on trying to work together, time passes,” Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, said during the Housing Committee’s public hearing Thursday. Most of the seven-hour hearing was taken up by people from wealthy towns testifying against the various bills aimed at increasing the availability of affordable housing. “The way that I understand time, when it comes to issues of race in this country and in this state, [is that] the people who have the ability to wait oftentimes will think ‘Well, you know, we can do this and get it figured out over time.’ But the people who don’t have the ability to wait are suffering.”
During the campaign, Biden promised to “eliminate local and state housing regulations that perpetuate discrimination,” and during his first week in office, he signed an executive order to begin redressing housing discrimination.
“Racial inequality still permeates land-use patterns in most U.S. cities and virtually all aspects of housing markets,” the order reads.
The housing discrimination complaint against Gov. Ned Lamont puts the Biden Administration in a somewhat difficult position politically, since the governor was an early supporter of the president during the campaign and Connecticut has a progressive reputation, with Democrats controlling the legislature for 23 years and the governor’s residence for 10.
An official with HUD said Friday that the investigation is active and that while a decision has not been made yet, the federal Fair Housing Act mandates that the agency complete an investigation of discrimination within 100 days “unless it is impracticable to do so.”
That deadline passed in December.
Will Connecticut change its laws?
At issue in the Connecticut complaint and lawsuit are the local policies that restrict where Section 8 housing vouchers can be used and where housing authorities have the ability to develop public housing. Families that receive the vouchers have little choice about what towns to live in since state law gives the overwhelming majority of the 33,000 federal vouchers used each month in Connecticut to housing authorities, and recipients face major barriers to using those vouchers outside that town’s borders.
“The notion that, except in very limited circumstances, [public housing authorities] cannot make affordable housing opportunities available to Black and Latino families unless white municipalities consent to their presence is a fundamental affront to the very principles and goals of the Fair Housing Act,” the August complaint filed by the Open Communities Alliance reads. The law “maintains and perpetuates segregated housing patterns in Connecticut.”
This law disproportionately affects Black and Hispanic residents since nearly 80% of the state’s voucher holders are non-white residents.
Officially called Housing Choice Vouchers, the subsidies were supposed to allow poor people to find decent housing outside underserved communities, but an investigation in 2020 by the Connecticut Mirror and ProPublica found recipients in Connecticut struggle to use their vouchers outside segregated neighborhoods because of these bureaucratic walls, a lack of available housing within their budget, or landlords refusing to rent to voucher holders. As a result, four out of every five families that get help paying their rent from a Section 8 voucher live in racially isolated communities and over half in neighborhoods with extreme poverty.
The federal government lets local housing authorities grade themselves on whether they help low-income people secure housing outside struggling neighborhoods. Authorities report they are doing amazingly well, despite the data and stories showing the challenges poor people face finding a rental where they want to live.
Legislation that was before the state’s Housing Committee on Thursday — which has failed to ever win approval in either the state House of Representatives or Senate — would allow housing authorities to process vouchers for apartments or homes they may find in neighboring towns. It also would allow housing authorities to build affordable housing in neighboring towns, but only if they win local zoning approval.
One third of the state’s municipalities have no housing authority.
The Lamont administration did not provide any testimony on the legislation during his two legislative sessions in office, but this year, his commissioner of housing offered her support.
“Our mission is to ensure everyone has access to quality housing opportunities and options throughout the state of Connecticut,” said Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno, a former non-profit housing developer in the New Haven region. “For too long, affordable housing developed by housing authorities has been isolated inside the arbitrary town boundaries in which those housing authorities were established. This committee has the opportunity to make a common-sense change to partially level the playing field between housing authorities and private developers by allowing housing authorities to build housing in a reasonable area outside their home jurisdictions.”
Opposition from residents in well-off communities and members of the suburban-dominated legislature has been fierce, stoking fears that urban cities would take over housing development in tony towns like Ridgefield or Westport, even though that is not what the proposed legislation would do.
“Think Danbury and Norwalk Housing Authorities having oversight over Ridgefield,” former longtime state Rep. John Frey, R-Ridgefield, wrote on Facebook in October of the potential of two nearby majority-Black and Hispanic towns getting involved in his overwhelmingly white community.
The same image attached to his Facebook post was circulated widely by residents and state lawmakers in opposition.
That opposition consumed much of the housing committee’s public hearing Thursday.
Tim Herbst was one of those who testified against the changes. He is the former Trumbull first selectman and chairman of the local Planning and Zoning Commission, a former Republican gubernatorial candidate and a land-use attorney representing residents in Woodbridge opposed to allowing a four-unit property to be built on a single-family lot.
“This proposed legislation and what it is attempting to do [is] playing Big Brother on other municipalities in the state of Connecticut,” he said. “If this legislation is passed, and if the governor signs this into law, I’m telling all of you, Republican and Democrat alike, I believe you are going to see a bi-partisan uprising in this state, the likes of which you have never seen.”
Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said he believes it is false and racist to say that zoning restrictions that prevent affordable housing from being built in certain communities are keeping Black and Latino residents out.
“I think that premise is inherently racist, that in order to have more people of color in communities with character you have to destroy the character. It’s simply not true,” he said.
The Housing Committee co-chairs pushed back.
“These bills are not to destroy the character of these towns. They are to investigate and look at why in a state such as ours — one of the wealthiest states in the country — that we are guaranteed a very high standard of living, a very high standard of economic potential and opportunity, a very high standard of health care if we live in about 140 of the towns and cities of this state. But if people live in the 10 poor communities in this state, they are not guaranteed those same opportunities,” said Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain.
Nearly three hours into the public hearing, Rep. Brandon McGee, D-Hartford, urged people opposed to the affordable housing legislation to consider the impact the state’s housing policies have on people.
“It’s important that we understand this conversation is also about equity, race, and the long history of inequities in the housing system throughout the state of Connecticut. And so I think we always have to be mindful of that during this particular conversation on housing affordability and affordable housing,” he said.
House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Rojas hopes a pending decision from HUD spur the legislature into action, but he’s not sure whether there is a path forward.
“It depends how legislators want to approach this very serious issue,” said Rojas, D-East Hartford. “Not surprisingly, it’s an issue that has been politicized more than having an honest discussion on the policy merits of what we’re talking about. So I think a lot depends on that. It’s a difficult political vote, I think, for members of both parties.”
Having a complaint pending, he said, can serve as a push to get something done, or it can be used as an excuse by legislators who want to see if they are forced to change things.
“In some ways it helps, but in some ways it makes the conversation even more political,” he said. “We’ll see.”
While the legislature decides whether it will act, Erin Boggs, the executive director of the Open Communities Alliance who brought the complaint, plans to continue to bluntly remind them that she believes they are in violation of federal fair housing laws.
“I think now is the perfect opportunity for the state of Connecticut to address this long-standing civil rights violation, and the legislature has a critical role to play in doing that.” she said. “The most meaningful step they can take is change the Housing Authority jurisdiction law to allow housing authorities to operate in a way that does not run into the Fair Housing Act.”