Stamford Advocate (Sunday)

To face a climate emergency, we must take on housing

- By Sara Bronin Sara Bronin, a Hartford attorney and architect, founded and leads the Desegregat­eCT coalition.

If business leaders lent their voice to this fight, we could achieve reforms that benefit both the economy and the environmen­t — while providing homes to people who need them.

Earlier this summer, buoyed by thousands of activists who descended on the virtual Capitol demanding change, the Connecticu­t Legislatur­e enacted the most sweeping land use reforms in over three decades. Among other things, it legalized accessory apartments, required training and certificat­ions for zoning officials, modernized traffic standards and eliminated minimum unit size requiremen­ts. Connecticu­t also became the first state to cap minimum parking requiremen­ts for housing, to require zoning codes to “affirmativ­ely further” fair housing and to develop a model form-based code which will lead to more objective decision-making.

We should celebrate these reforms, which will enable the creation of more, and more diverse kinds of, housing. Yet they have one major flaw: they fail to meaningful­ly address climate change. According to the recently released report from the Intergover­nmental Panel on Climate Change, we likely only have until 2040 to completely reengineer the way we live, or risk irreversib­le self-destructio­n. The first signs of climate collapse, including extreme heat and sea level rise, are already affecting Connecticu­t.

Unfortunat­ely, Connecticu­t’s land use policies both create climate change and prevent us from adapting to it. As we show in the Desegregat­eCT Zoning Atlas, on 81 percent of residentia­l land, property owners need an acre to legally build a home. In large-lot neighborho­ods, people are fully dependent on cars, which is disastrous given that the transporta­tion sector is the leading contributo­r to greenhouse gas emissions.

To fulfill our legal mandate to primarily build sprawl, we have to cut down the trees that clean our air, filter pollutants and lower temperatur­es. We also end up destroying farmland, which results in our food traveling from farther and farther away, carried by trucks that release greenhouse gases. Suburban lawns now cover more of Connecticu­t than farms. Indeed, between 1985 and 2010, we lost 6.5 percent of our forests and 15 percent of our agricultur­al land.

Making things worse, land use laws mostly ban the kind of housing that reduces driving, such as multifamil­y homes near shops, activities and transit. Just 2.1 percent of residentia­l land freely permits four-or-more family housing. People prefer walkable neighborho­ods over sprawl, so it’s no wonder the census released this week revealed that Connecticu­t has a depressing­ly stagnant population.

On the other hand, there may be a hidden silver lining to low growth. Between 1970 and 2000, when the state’s population grew 12 percent, residentia­l land increased 102 percent. If in the coming years we add more people before changing zoning laws, we’re going to see even faster destructio­n of the landscapes that so many of us love.

Our neighbors have done better. Vermont has tackled the environmen­tal scourge of minimum lot sizes, enabling homeowners to subdivide their land to create new housing plots. Last year, Massachuse­tts, with overwhelmi­ng bipartisan support, enacted legislatio­n to permit transit-oriented developmen­t around every MBTA station in the state.

For Connecticu­t to catch up, we need the public to embrace a new land use policy vision, and we need leaders who understand the gravity of inaction. During the last session, a proposal similar to the one passed in Massachuse­tts died before any vote. The proposal would have jump-started developmen­t around train stations and ensured 10 percent of new units were deeply affordable. Another proposal that died would have created walkable communitie­s by enabling housing around commercial main streets. The CBIA complains about thousands of unfilled manufactur­ing jobs, and restaurant­s are shutting down because they can’t find workers, but few link the worker shortage with the housing shortage. If business leaders lent their voice to this fight, we could achieve reforms that benefit both the economy and the environmen­t — while providing homes to people who need them.

A few have beaten the tired drum of “local control.” But as I’ve written elsewhere, climate change is just too big to be tackled by local government­s acting alone, even if some cities, including Hartford, have tried. Similarly, the housing crisis cannot be solved adequately by 180 zoning jurisdicti­ons making separate, uncoordina­ted decisions. While the vast majority of planning and zoning commission­ers mean well, few have the technical training, political will or long-term perspectiv­e that will lead to necessary change. It took us six months just to read and analyze the 32,378 pages of zoning codes for the Zoning Atlas. Imagine how long it would take to beg 180 zoning boards to identify and revise key provisions that we know can change our trajectory on climate.

We don’t have that kind of time. Together, we launched an unpreceden­ted campaign to begin to tackle entrenched segregatio­n. In the light of mounting evidence that land use policy is climate policy, and housing justice is environmen­tal justice, we must now expand the fight to include intersecti­onal, statewide policy reforms that can shelter more families, in more affordable housing, in smarter places. Before it really is too late.

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