Civil rights group sues Woodbridge, says city ‘unjustifiably restricts’ multi-family housing

A statewide civil rights and housing advocacy group is set to file a lawsuit against the city of Woodbridge and its planning and zoning commission on Tuesday, alleging the zoning code local “unjustifiably restricts” multifamily housing, limiting choices for low-income families, the group tells CT Insider.

Lawsuit by Hartford-based Open Communities Alliance claims Woodbridge’s zoning bylaws violate Connecticut’s Fair Housing Act, the state’s new zoning reform law and the state’s constitution . He’s asking a judge to ban certain elements of the city’s zoning code and require new policies to promote affordable housing.

The lawsuit rekindles a struggle for affordable housing in Woodbridge that began nearly two years ago, when the alliance – with a request for a multi-family development in hand – led a march to City Hall demand the city revise its zoning laws. Officials in the wealthy, mostly white city have rejected sweeping reforms, leaving behind a zoning code that blocks multi-family housing on more than 98% of its land.

The Open Communities Alliance and its allies hope a favorable ruling will not only lead to more affordable housing in Woodbridge, but also spur similar action in other towns.

“Woodbridge effectively built a wall around its borders,” the lawsuit said, “misusing its state-delegated zoning power to prevent multifamily and affordable housing and people who live in multifamily and affordable housing from walk in”.

The lawsuit chronicles a decades-long history of restrictive zoning regulations in Woodbridge and claims that the lack of affordable options there “contributes to the shortage of such housing throughout the region and state.” He argues that restrictive policies in Woodbridge disproportionately hurt black and Latino residents, who are more likely to need affordable multi-family housing.

Although Woodbridge is far from the only wealthy white town in Connecticut with little affordable housing, lawsuit supporters see it as a particularly stark example. Although adjoining a city where more than 60% of the inhabitants are black or Latino and more than a quarter live in povertyWoodbridge is less than 10% black and Latino, with only 1.3% of its housing classified as “affordable”.

“Woodbridge is particularly interesting because there isn’t a lot of affordable housing, and yet it’s right next to the city of New Haven,” said Erin Boggs, founder and executive director of the Open Communities Alliance. “The lack of affordable housing just doesn’t make sense.

Woodbridge first coach Beth Heller did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Tuesday.

In late 2020, a group of civil rights lawyers, led by Open Communities Alliance, asked Woodbridge to approve their application to build a four-unit house on a 1.5-acre lot zoned for single-family homes they had purchased in partnership with a developer, and to revise the city’s planning and zoning laws town.

Amid reluctance from some residents, Woodbridge refused to approve the request and made just small adjustments zoning regulations, allowing multi-family dwellings only on less than 2% of the city’s residential area served by public water and sewer infrastructure, provided developers first obtain Commission approval local planning and zoning.

The retrial escalates in that fight, following what the Open Communities Alliance and its allies say are insufficient changes. The plaintiffs include an LLC affiliated with the Open Communities Alliance, the Stamford-based foundation Garden Homes Fund and its affiliated LLC, and two white Woodbridge residents who say they suffer from Woodbridge’s lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity.

Anika Singh Lemar, a clinical professor at Yale Law School representing the plaintiffs, called Woodbridge a “glorified homeowners association,” whose housing rules exist primarily to preserve the city as white and wealthy.

Singh Lemar said Woodbridge uses environmental concerns as an excuse “to regulate the wealth you need to live” there.

“What cities like Woodbridge have done is they have selectively embraced false environmentalism as justification for their zoning ordinances, when it suits their preferences,” Singh Lemar said. “There’s nothing eco-friendly about single-family McMansions on two-acre lots five miles from a major employer.”

The groups behind the lawsuit hope a ruling in their favor would have implications beyond Woodbridge, setting a precedent for similar legal action in other cities. connecticut last year passed a bill encourage cities to promote fair housing but allow them to derogate from certain essential provisions. Recently, more than half of Connecticut cities missed their deadline to submit an affordable housing plan, as required by the new law.

Thomas Silverstein, a lawyer with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law who worked with the plaintiffs in the Woodbridge case, said a ruling for the plaintiffs could even have a national impact.

“It can provide a template and a blueprint for entities that want to promote the development of affordable housing to show injuries in similar circumstances across the country,” Silverstein said.

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