Clinics File Civil Rights Lawsuit Challenging Exclusionary Zoning in Connecticut

From left to right: Rubin Danberg Biggs ’23, Demi Moore ’24, Nathan Cummings ’23, Mira Netsky ’23, Ian Miller ’24, Nathan Baker Clinical Professor of Law J.L. Pottenger Jr. ’75, Open Communities Alliance Executive Director Erin Boggs, Garden Homes Fund trustee Richard Freedman, Clinical Professor of Law Anika Singh Lemar, attorney Thomas Silverstein of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and Open Communities Alliance board co-chair Constance L. Royster.

Yale Law School students and faculty helped file a major lawsuit in Connecticut state court challenging the zoning policies of the town of Woodbridge, Connecticut.

The complaint alleges that Woodbridge, an affluent suburb adjacent to New Haven, has for decades impeded the development of affordable and multifamily housing within its borders through restrictive zoning laws. The plaintiffs, a group of housing advocates, charge that these policies violate Connecticut’s Zoning Enabling Act, Fair Housing Act, and state constitution.

Plaintiffs include Open Communities Trust, an affordable housing development subsidiary Open Communities Alliance (OCA), a Connecticut-based nonprofit dedicated to eradicating exclusionary zoning and increasing access to opportunity. OCA is a longtime client of Yale Law School’s Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization (LSO). LSO is co-counsel in the suit alongside international law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP and national civil rights nonprofit the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 30.

The suit, which has been covered by media including The New York Times and Hartford Courant, represents the culmination of years of work by students and faculty in LSO’s Housing and Community & Economic Development Clinics on OCA’s #OpenWoodbridge campaign. In September 2020, LSO helped OCA file a proposed zoning amendment to help move the town’s zoning toward compliance with the law. As part of that effort, Yale Law School students advocated before the Woodbridge Planning & Zoning Commission during the public hearing on OCA’s application. The current action argues that the town’s response was clearly inadequate to remedy its long history of exclusion or allow Woodbridge to meet its “fair share” of housing units for the region.

WATCH: Press Conference Announcing Lawsuit at New Haven State Courthouse

press conference in front of a courthouse in New Haven
Mira Netsky ’23 speaks at the press conference announcing the lawsuit.

The Law School clinical team has worked with OCA since the start of its advocacy efforts, from researching the town’s long history of segregation to crafting and developing potential legal claims. In preparation for the most recent filing, LSO students delved into Connecticut’s state laws to help OCA’s legal team in drafting the complaint.

“Connecticut law requires towns to zone to promote housing choice and economic diversity, taking account of regional housing needs,” said Mira Netsky ’23. “Woodbridge’s zoning does the opposite, effectively erecting walls around the town that inevitably result in racial and economic exclusion and segregation that is not in the interest of any Woodbridge or Connecticut resident.”

Clinical Professor of Law Anika Singh Lemar and Nathan Baker Clinical Professor of Law Jay Pottenger ’75 jointly supervise the student team in their work on the lawsuit.

“While the lack of affordable housing has been an issue in Connecticut for many years, the dramatic spike in housing costs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has put an even finer point on just how much a lack of affordable housing is impacting lower- and moderate-income households throughout the state and worsening racial and economic segregation between towns like Woodbridge and the handful of cities that are compelled to host virtually all of the state’s affordable housing,” Singh Lemar said.

Demi Moore ’24 and Nathan Cummings ’23, two other members of the clinical student team, have both supported OCA’s efforts for multiple semesters during law school.

“The Zoning Enabling Act reflects the state’s commitment to responsible land-use management, where municipalities are required to zone in favor of housing choice and economic diversity,” Moore said. “The lawsuit asks simply that the town of Woodbridge respect its shared responsibility to both its residents and residents throughout the planning region in which the town is located.”

Cummings added, “This case has the potential to set a nationwide example for how towns can work to promote affordability and address longstanding patterns of segregation.” 

Martha Ferson ’16, a Yale Law School graduate and current Senior Associate at WilmerHale helping to represent the plaintiffs on a pro bono basis, previously participated in YLS’s clinics during her time in law school.

“Zoning regulations that drive up housing prices leave many households rent-burdened. That makes it difficult for them to afford essentials, such as groceries, health care, and school supplies,” said Ferson. “Our hope is that this suit will encourage all towns in Connecticut to comply with their legal obligations.”

“For decades, Woodbridge’s zoning has erected unjustifiable barriers preventing lower and moderate-income families, who are disproportionately families of color, from moving to town,” said Erin Boggs, founding Executive Director of OCA. “Woodbridge’s unduly restrictive zoning fails to address the stark regional need for affordable housing, disparately harms Black and Latino households, and deepens economic and racial segregation in the area.”

Open Communities Alliance is a Connecticut-based civil rights organization that promotes access to opportunity for all people through education, organizing, advocacy, research, and partnerships. The Alliance works to address Connecticut’s deep level of segregation and support policies that lead to housing choice.

The Jerome N. Frank Legal Services Organization at Yale Law School is a legal clinic in which students, supervised by law school faculty and participating attorneys, provide legal representation to a range of clients, including organizations seeking to promote fair housing and community and economic development. The Community and Economic Development Clinic and Housing Clinic jointly represent OCA and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.