Is It Time for a National Zoning Atlas?

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Connecticut’s overall housing shortage, as well, Bronin says, is the result of “zoning by 1,000 cuts”: different obstacles in different towns, but adding up to a systematic, statewide problem.

The Connecticut Zoning Atlas identifies many of these thousand cuts. Not only does it categorize areas by the basic number of homes (one, two, three, four, or more) allowed in a structure, but it also addresses restrictions such as minimum lot sizes, parking minimums, and density or lot coverage caps that can profoundly restrict what is actually viable to build on a site. Bronin’s methodology also allows for zoning districts to be coded by whether a certain land use—say, an Accessory Dwelling Unit—is allowed as of right or must go through a public hearing.

After the atlas was complete, Bronin’s team identified trends. Eighty percent of Connecticut has large minimum lot sizes of an acre or more, and numerous areas around passenger train stations are still zoned for single-family housing—a lost opportunity to capitalize on massive transit investments, as well as to allow people who could benefit from rapid transit to live within accessible distance of it. Overall, 91% of Connecticut permits single-family housing, while only 2% of the state allows four-or-more-family housing without a public hearing.

These findings have allowed DesegregateCT to tailor its legislative proposals to the actual conditions on the ground in Connecticut, with empirical backing. In 2021, the group claimed a major victory as Connecticut’s state legislature passed the first statewide zoning reforms in 30 years. Among other things, these changes legalized ADUs statewide, put a lid on local parking requirements for residential uses (they now may not exceed one space per bedroom), and required the state to draft a model form-based code that cities can adapt.

In 2022, this legislative momentum has stalled a bit. DesegregateCT backed House Bill 5429, which focused on legalizing incremental housing density in communities near mass transit. The bill would have required towns to allow housing of at least 15 units per acre within a half mile of a rail or bus rapid transit (BRT) station. (This density threshold would include missing-middle types, including triple-deckers and row houses.)

HB 5429 failed to make it out of committee on March 25th. DesegregateCT and other groups have promised to continue their advocacy. But in the meantime, thanks to the insight offered by the Zoning Atlas, local opponents of housing are not able to hide behind arguments like “There’s plenty of room to build elsewhere.” With a clear way of tracking the statewide extent of many of these restrictions, it’s no longer as easy to declare exclusionary zoning Someone Else’s Problem.

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