Research Shows Exclusionary Zoning Can Impede Student Performance

Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens’ Knowledge of Zoning Laws impresses Legislators

HARTFORD, CT, June 14, 2013 – Fionnuala Darby-Hudgens graduated in May but her research will live on...and on.

It will be used by the Connecticut Fair Housing Center, by members of a state legislative task force whose mission is to consider impediments to fair housing choice, and by policy wonks who have an abiding interest in zoning and affordable housing and how they relate to the educational outcomes of Connecticut students.

“Her careful and thorough research of zoning laws in Connecticut was invaluable to our work, and her testimony before the legislature was critical in ensuring that a bill designed to further study racial disparities in Connecticut was passed,” said Erin Boggs, deputy director of the Fair Housing Center.

Of Darby-Hudgens’ testimony at the state Capitol, Jason Rojas, a state representative and Trinity’s Director of Community Relations said: “She was impressive, poised and on point. I can tell you that my colleagues were impressed with her understanding of the issue.”

Not only was the bill, HB 6574, adopted by both chambers of the General Assembly, it has been signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy. According to the bill analysis, “the ultimate goal of the task force is to attempt to tackle the critical issue of affordable housing development and improving housing access for families with children in high-opportunity communities, to improve access for individuals with disabilities and, most importantly, to address the continued challenge we face as a state that is highly segregated by race and class.”

Rojas said he is hoping that Darby-Hudgens’ research will be used by the task force, given its research value and her findings.

Darby-Hudgens13.jpgIt’s not every day that a student’s work – in this case, a yearlong senior project conducted under the auspices of the College’s Community Learning Initiative (CLI) – has such a profound impact on public policy. But those who read the results of Darby-Hudgens’ study or heard her testimony and her thesis presentation in May were awed by the depth and breadth of her research and her conclusions.

Darby-Hudgens, an educational studies major, an IDP student and a CLI Research Fellow, worked under the direction of Jack Dougherty, associate professor of educational studies, in conjunction with a community learning partner, the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. Darby-Hudgens’ project represents the essence of what CLI is about: a type of experiential learning in which a student and community organization share knowledge in crafting solutions. It’s also a way for students to develop a sense of civic responsibility and gain the satisfaction of helping to solve vexing problems.

“It was an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to work with Fionnuala and Trinity College,” said Boggs. “The community partners model is really valuable for those of us who can take advantage of it. We just appreciate the program so much.”

If the goals of the CLI program are to identify problems, do fieldwork and help devise solutions, Darby-Hudgens passed with flying colors (and, indeed, she graduated summa cum laude). Her project, “How Obstacles to Fair Housing Create Barriers to Equitable Education,” posed these two questions: Can zoning policy limit the availability of affordable housing and does affordable housing relate to school district performance?

In a word, the answers to both questions were “yes.”

Dougherty noted that, “Fionnuala found her niche at Trinity through community-learning experiences that helped her to connect her research interests with real-world issues. As I've watched her deliver public presentations on her senior thesis, the entire audience comes to appreciate her as an intense, intelligent speaker who directly communicates her passion about public policy.”

Darby-Hudgens examined the zoning regulations in 167 of Connecticut’s 169 municipalities, a daunting task in and of itself, especially since many of the zoning laws are not readily available to the public and others are difficult -- often intentionally -- to decipher.

She analyzed the regulations and coded them by type of restrictions, such as minimum lot size requirements for single-family houses, which drive up housing costs and effectively block low- to middle-income families from living in a community and attending its public schools.

“The findings indicate that residential zoning policies limit the development of affordable housing,” she said. “Furthermore the results suggest that affordable housing availability correlates negatively with school district performance. These findings recognize zoning as a housing policy that contributes to the economic segregation of Connecticut public schools, and arguably to the performance deficiencies prevalent in low-income school districts across the state.”

More specifically, Darby-Hudgens found that for every one-acre increase in minimum lot size requirements, the percentage of affordable housing stock decreases by 3.8 percent. And for every 1 percent increase in the percentage of zones permitting multi-family housing, the amount of affordable housing stock increases 6.64 percent.

The percentage of affordable housing stock available in each municipality ranges from 0 to 40 percent, and more than 60 percent of municipalities have less than 5 percent.

So how does that translate into students’ educational performance?

By limiting the housing choice of Connecticut’s low- and moderate-income families because of restrictive zoning and minimum lot size requirements, families are effectively blocked from residing in communities with some of the best public schools. Thus, children from low- and moderate-income families are not afforded the same educational opportunities as children from more affluent families.

“Demography really matters in Connecticut,” said Darby-Hudgens. “As median income rises, student performance rises.”

She said the state needs to take a hard look at the issues of land-use planning and exclusionary zoning if it really wants to make progress in terms of improving the educational outcomes of all students. Darby-Hudgens agreed with others in describing her findings as “really exciting.”

Indeed, Boggs said that not since 1978 had anyone undertaken such a thorough review of the state’s zoning as Darby-Hudgens and that it is now clear that “zoning is a significant barrier to fair housing choice.” Boggs added that Darby-Hudgens’ research is going to be part of a state report that should come out in the next few months, and that her research will “inform the work of the task force.”