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How zoning affects the wealth gap

David Brancaccio May 6, 2013
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A “snob zone” is a place that uses restrictive zoning in a residential area to keep certain types of housing — and therefore people — out, says Lisa Prevost. Prevost’s book, Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate, comes out today and focuses on several towns in the Northeast, an area she’s covered extensively for outfits like the New York Times and Boston Globe.

One of those towns, a place called Roxbury in Connecticut, is a prime example of a snob zone, according to Prevost. Roxbury used to be a rural farm town, but wealthy people seeking the quiet of rolling hills and country simplicity moved in. And when they moved in, the price to own a home moved up. Adding to that cost, says Prevost, were highly-restrictive zoning laws put in place by the local government to attract “the right kinds of people.” For instance, one zoning law considered by the town would require people to have a minimum lot size of four acres in the town. Owning four acres would affectively exclude a broad swath of incomes from moving into town.

“Roxbury is one of the most expensive towns in Connecticut, and you could say that that’s the way they want it,” says Prevost.

The zoning laws in Roxbury are also chasing locals, who have ties to the community going back generations, out of town. As prices go up and restrictions become more onerous, Roxbury increasingly becomes a town for the rich only, says Prevost. The rich, and the old. Young families can’t afford to buy and there are no smaller, starter homes available in town because of zoning restrictions. The demographic shift in Roxbury isn’t limited to this single town, says Prevost. Connecticut has one of the oldest populations in the country with one of the lowest birthrates. Aging populations require younger people to fill out local tax bases and innovate new jobs into the economy. Without young people, Connecticut’s future looks pretty dicey.

Communities with better mixes of single- and multi-family housing, with options for all income levels, are better communities, says Prevost.

“For a housing market, it’s always healthy to have a range of housing so that people can move up the ladder,” she says. “I grew up in New Hampshire and I remember when the small towns did have the bank president living the same place where the farm laborers did. We have lost a lot of that through suburbanization and as we see the deepening inequities between incomes, I think that’s reinforced by some of this zoning.”

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