On a sunny spring afternoon in 2016, Richard Freedman went on a bike ride through New Canaan.
The housing developer was fresh off a disappointment. He had applied to build housing for low-income people in Westport, but his plan had just been rejected.
As he rode through the hillsides that afternoon — where mansions with gated entrances were separated from each other by four acres and stone walls — Freedman wondered whether civil rights groups or developers would ever find a way to change zoning laws so that more than one housing unit could be built on these huge lots. The properties take up most of the town and largely shut out those who need affordable housing.
New Canaan is one of the state’s most affluent and racially isolated communities, and Freedman had been turned away from building affordable housing there a few years earlier.
“It’s obviously a public street, but you feel like you’re intruding on the private lands of an aristocracy,” Freedman, a resident of Stamford and president of Garden Homes Management, said about his ride through town.
Then, as he rode along Oenoke Ridge, he thought to himself that he could easily fit 10 separated two-bedroom apartments into each mansion.
“House after house after house, they’re the size of hotels. That’s how big they are. They’re bigger than some of the apartment buildings I own,” he said. “Then, it finally hit me: If the zoning lets you build a house that big for one family, why can’t you build a home the same size — for more than one family?”
When he returned home, he called Erin Boggs, a civil rights attorney who focuses on housing desegregation and the leader of Open Communities Alliance, and shared his epiphany. The duo then shared the idea with the fair housing development clinic at Yale Law School, and a coalition was formed to attempt to dismantle single-family zoning in a state with some of the most racially isolated communities in the country.
The idea was simple: Let developers build two, three or four housing units in the same size structure, as long as they meet all the other requirements for single-family homes that don’t need special permission.
“The remedy that they proposed is brilliant in its simplicity,” said Timothy Hollister, a land-use attorney who has made a career out of shepherding through the courts affordable-housing projects in uncooperative towns.
Boggs, Freedman and the Yale professors and law students had a long list of towns in Connecticut that essentially prohibit anything but single-family homes from being built. When it came time for the team to decide which town’s zoning laws to challenge, they focused on one that stood out in stark contrast to its neighboring city: Woodbridge.
How one bike ride inspired a case that could upend CT’s zoning laws, Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, CT Mirror, May 6, 2021, available here