Middlesex United Way: We cannot ignore history of housing segregation

MIDDLETOWN — The Middlesex United Way has invested over $1.2 million in supporting local nonprofits that help people find both temporary and permanent housing.
We believe that all individuals and families should have access to safe and affordable housing in Middlesex County, and are proud to share that, throughout the past 10 years, significant strides have been made. Just recently, our partners, HOPE Partnership, created affordable housing units in Essex, building 17 residential units in a mix of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.
Living and working in Middlesex County, we have so many choices — choices of grocery stores, choices for recreation and cultural activities. And yet, when it comes to housing, there is little choice in most of our towns.
Local zoning regulations have encouraged the creation of detached single-family homes on large lots, and discouraged less expensive multifamily housing. Not everyone wants this type of housing, or can afford it.
These antiquated zoning practices have led to segregated towns and segregated schools. They created missed opportunities for our towns to attract young people, empty nesters and people from diverse backgrounds. The economic case for increasing housing options is easy to make, and so is the moral case.
The Middlesex United Way is committed to ensuring individuals and families live in an anti-racist, equitable and inclusive community. This can’t happen without meaningful change to local zoning practices.
Our country’s history of redlining, building affordable housing only in urban areas, and exclusive zoning has led to a concentration of poverty, and racial, economic and ethnic segregation.
I am hopeful that the time for change is here. There are signs all around us, as more and more people in our region recognize the need for more housing choices, and have come to see the negative impact of overly restrictive zoning regulations. More communities are waking up to the benefits of rental housing — towns such as Haddam, Essex, Old Saybrook and Portland.
Connecticut just passed the most sweeping zoning reform bill in decades. It makes it easier to create an in-law apartment in your home, requires planning and zoning commission members to participate in housing training, and clarifies the Zoning Enabling Act, among other worthwhile changes.
If we are to realize our vision for equitable and inclusive communities, we cannot ignore the long history of housing segregation. We must be intentional in dismantling this system that created it.
I ask you to get involved locally. Let your local planning and zoning commission members know that you support affordable housing in your community. If a project comes to your town for approval, testify in favor of it. The time for change is now.
To learn more about housing assistance right here in Middlesex County, contact 2-1-1 or our Community Impact Director Christina Heckart at christina.heckart@middlesexunitedway.org.
Kevin Wilhelm is president and CEO of the Middletown-based Middlesex United Way.