Westport event explores link between housing, segregation
WESTPORT — The historical connection between segregation and affordable housing in Fairfield County — and how to undo it — was the topic of discussion at a Wednesday event in town.
The program, held at Saugatuck Congregational Church and titled “De-Designing Segregation: Strategies to Unwind Residential Segregation,” was the second in a series jointly organized by the Westport Museum for History and Culture, the Fairfield Museum and History Center and the Open Communities Alliance.
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Speakers discussed the racial implications of affordable housing, a hot-button issue in Fairfield County as developers are met with local opposition to complexes in areas like Hiawatha Lane in Westport and High Street in Fairfield.
The event began with some historical context for segregation in towns like Fairfield and Westport, explaining how zoning laws have created socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to opportunity.
Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, said 73 percent of black and Latino populations in Connecticut live in the two lowest opportunity areas of the state. This, she argued, was intentionally designed by governmental programs to divide opportunities.
Yale Law School professor Anika Singh Lemar expanded on this history, noting that zoning, which divides neighborhoods predominantly by race, has allowed governments to provide better infrastructure, schools and services to white communities even after segregation was legally outlawed.
“The earliest zoning codes existed to separate people by race,” Lemar said. “It has segregated the infrastructure of opportunity.”
A personal perspective was provided by John Brittan, a professor at the University of the District of Columbia Law School and one of the lead lawyers in the landmark Sheff v. O’Neill school segregation case.
Brittain shared his own story of growing up in Saugatuck in the 1950s, where his parents worked and lived in the mansion of a wealthy businessman.
Brittain’s sister graduated from Staples High School as one of only three black students in her class. He later moved to and attended school in Norwalk, getting a firsthand look at the deep disparities in educational access between wealthy, white and poor, black communities in Connecticut.
“Housing is the No. 1 cause of racial segregation in schools,” Brittain said, explaining how his experience inspired him to pursue the Supreme Court case.
The event moved on to discuss strategies for combatting the segregation of opportunity.
Lemar laid out a series of potential zoning solutions, such as getting rid of single-family zoning restrictions, allowing for starter homes such as townhouses and rowhomes, reducing minimum parcel sizes, allowing for accessory dwelling units and passing inclusionary zoning statutes.
Representatives from the Fairfield Affordable Housing Committee and TEAM Westport also discussed local initiatives working to increase local affordable housing, such as creating affordable housing trust funds and updating zoning regulations.