Zoning Desire Paths

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How that might translate into other jurisdictions depends on need, price inflation, level of enforcement and the kinds of built environment available for homeowners to work their creative magic to make new housing where none exists now. 

Informal housing is most successful when it’s hard to see, built to escape notice from building inspectors and neighbors. That’s much harder to do in suburban Connecticut where I live, for example, than in urban Los Angeles. 

The Times article quotes Jake Wegmann, a professor of urban planning at the University of Texas at Austin, who describes additions that make use of driveways and yard space instead of going up to a second or third floor, as “horizontal density.” 

Wegmann tells the Times the number of tenants making use of such horizontal density easily goes into the millions nationwide. Their presence is often logged in the form of proxy complaints about city services, including parking availability on the street, sewer pipes deteriorating, and overcrowded schools. Unpermitted housing is underlying all of it, Dr. Wegmann said in the interview. 

Those proxy complaints are the reasons given by suburban homeowners, state legislators, and local planning and zoning officials to argue against the addition of multi-family zoning in vigorous debates in the Connecticut General Assembly last year. Single family homes in the Land of Steady Habits commonly sit on one-acre lots, and demand for affordable housing is off the charts—aggravated by pandemic-era population shifts away from urban areas.

A new non-profit advocacy group called DesegregateCT is working to reform zoning in Connecticut, location of some of the most restrictive single family zoning in America. DesegregateCT volunteers did months of data gathering and analysis to create a Connecticut zoning “atlas” last year. It showed about 91 percent of the three million zoned acres in Connecticut can be single-family homes as of right, meaning no public hearing is necessary to build them. By comparison, only 28.5 percent of zoned lots are available for two units as of right, 2.3 percent allows for three units, and 2 percent allows for four or more. Eight towns don’t allow any multi-family housing at all. 

Land use is controlled by local planning authorities in 169 separate municipalities in Connecticut, one of the reasons why DesegregateCT had to go to such lengths to analyze zoning distribution. In some cases, land use was indicated in hand-drawn maps from a pre-digital era. Advocates for reform are pushing for a statewide approach to opening up affordable housing options. It’s been slow going. 

Horizontal density is unlikely to expand onto exclusive, one-acre suburban lots in Connecticut, where neighbors are very likely to notice and protest. But more urban areas accept informal units as a crucial part of their housing supply, Dougherty writes. Just how often, and how actively, city rules catch up to actual land use depends on the city and the size of the zoning enforcement and code compliance budget. 

Before my family bought it as an investment, a two-family home in a streetcar suburb in Connecticut housed a multigenerational family structure. An older member of the family cut hair in the basement and slept in the partially-finished attic while the family rented out or inhabited the two formal units. This arrangement helped support a large family for a generation. No one complained to code enforcement staff. They didn’t need to. 

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