Examining Wilton’s History: Racial Justice, Inequality and Activism–Part 4: Housing

Additional reporting by Heather Borden Herve

America is erupting into discussion, protests, and action in response to racism, police brutality, and injustice nationwide. Our reaction now, as a nation and a town, raises the question–have we been here before?

Asking where we’ve come from and who we are as a community fits the pledge GOOD Morning Wilton has made to tell more diverse stories and better reflect all of Wilton.

Over the past several weeks, reporter Lily Kepner has started delving into Wilton’s history, the good, bad, and truthful, investigating Wilton’s complicated history of race, activism, and inaction in order to contribute to the discussion of what we can do better today.

Wilton’s history started long before the Civil Rights Movement. From violent pro-slavery bombings in the early 1800s to a barber denying service to a Black child in the 1950s to microaggressions in our schools and town today, it’s clear that despite many positive actions, Wilton is far from perfect.

Kepner’s research encompasses documents and archived Wilton Bulletin articles provided by Julie Hughes, the Wilton Library History Room‘s archivist; and Wilton Historical Society resources sent by associate curator Nick Foster. GMW also spoke to Robert Russell, author of Wilton, Connecticut:  Three Centuries of People, Places, and Progress, and other long-time residents of the community for their perspective.

Recognizing our limitations with available resources and documents, we’ve done our best to begin to present an unvarnished look at Wilton’s history. It’s an ongoing project, and we encourage people to share their own experiences and memories of Wilton.

Today’s inequalities may look different from those of the past, but recent events have shown the nation undoubtedly maintains disparities between people of different races. Just as national news now awakens us to our country’s troubled history with race, examining our own town shows us we are not an exception to a complicated past.

All of this has led to this multi-part series, looking at “Racial Inequality, Justice, and Activism in Wilton,” and the first of many articles we plan to publish on the subject of race in Wilton. 

Last week, Part 1 of the series traced the town’s complicated involvement in slavery and the abolitionist movement, as well as more recent theatrical bigotry; Part 2 picked up on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement when Wilton found advocates for change in many places as well as new neighbors changing the face of Wilton; Part 3, amplified the voice of a longtime resident–a Black woman who shared her story of moving to Wilton with her white husband and raising their three sons here over the last 23 years.

Today, Part 4 examines Wilton’s fraught history with housing and housing diversity, a topic inextricably entwined with race in Connecticut. We’ll conclude with one last entry with an eye toward seeing where Wilton stands now.

This series is a small step forward to making sure we progress in the right direction, so that when future generations look back on our actions as part of their history, they too can seek answers to the questions of where they came from and who they are as a community. Hopefully, they’ll discover we were a generation that cared to learn from the mistakes of our past to correct our wrongs and do better. 


Closed-Off Housing Opportunities Have Deep Wilton Roots  

A variety of available housing is often considered a key indicator of how open a community is to racial diversity. That’s especially true in Connecticut, where there is historical evidence of active efforts to keep the state segregated through tools that included race-restrictive land ownership covenants–something to which Wilton was not immune in the years before the Civil Rights Movement.

One land record shared with GMW from the Wilton Library’s History Room dates to June 1940, and contains a “protective covenant” governing the land that called for the residential lots to “be occupied, except for domestic servants, only by members of the white race.” 

According to ConnecticutHistory.org, covenants like these almost completely blocked suburban homeownership in the state from Black people during the 1940s.

In the Wilton land record shown, this exclusion was stated casually, listed fourth out of nine rules governing what could be done with the land. As a legally binding covenant, if it was violated or broken by the landowners or any of their successors, “it shall be lawful for any other person or persons owning any real property situated in sold development or subdivision to prosecute any proceedings at law or in equity against the persons violating or attempting to violate any such covenant.

Wilton’s archivist Julie Hughes identified the owner of the land at the time as Donald M. Douglass, who was also an architect. He sold homes to 15 other families Hughes could verify (and likely more she couldn’t) between 1942 and the early 1950s. This particular property was on Powder Horn Hill Road.

While the 1948 Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer found such restrictions unenforceable under the 14th Amendment, the decision didn’t make the covenants themselves illegal. As a result, the restrictions remained codified in many property deeds, and landowners often simply continued the discriminatory practice of selling only to other white people.

The covenant in this Wilton land record was valid until at least January 1961. It’s not clear when the covenant was changed, though an October 1963 Wilton Bulletin article described it as a “dead letter.” As of 1963, it was among two race-based restrictions that enforced segregation in Wilton–the other one was current while this one was inactive–that was discussed by then former Republican state representative Morris Earle at a workshop held by the Wilton Committee for Open Housing.

Off-paper racial sentiments were uglier still, in violent and shocking ways. In June of 1963, a Redding home about to be sold to a Black family was burned to the ground. The arson followed several anonymous phone calls threatening the buyer to rethink their decision. The arson shocked neighboring towns–including Wilton.

In a June 1963 issue of the Wilton Bulletin, Douglass, the owner of the Powder Horn Hill property described in the above land record, wrote a letter to the editor about the covenant attached to the land, expressing his regret about the clause:

“The house burning in Redding points up the fact that this racial ugliness is neither trivial or very far away. I am afraid that we cannot just hope that trouble will pass us by.
“I have a personal feeling of guilt because when I divided up the properties on Powder Horn Hill, I wrote into the restrictions and deeds the phrase ‘to be sold to persons of the Caucasian race.’ This was copied from other similar self zoning documents common at the time but it was thoughtless and I regret it.”
–Donald Douglass

Nonetheless, he criticized the town’s discussion of race in housing, calling it fruitless.

“The public breastbeating is emotional at least and self-serving at worst. 
“What would be constructive would be for these crusaders for decency and equality to circularize the home owners and ask the simple question:  ‘Would you raise an objection if an adjoining property owner sold his property to non-whites?’ What the result would be I wouldn’t know, but on so vital an issue it certainly is desirable that people stand up and be counted.”

Douglass’ letter clearly illustrates that although town documents might have no longer definitively excluded other races, there were some in Wilton who still resisted change. But that didn’t mean advocacy groups weren’t trying.

Wilton Committee for Open Housing–and Those Who Opposed It

In the 1960s, housing continued to be a weighty conversation in town. A group called the Wilton Committee for Open Housing was formed with a mission “to establish conditions in Wilton such that all people regardless of race or creed can have equal opportunities.”

In 1963, the Bulletin endorsed the Committee and it’s mission, writing that “…perhaps this small New England town, in this small way, can hasten the day when all persons will have equal opportunities and when every man will be considered on the basis of his abilities and his characters, rather than his religion or color of his skin.” 

According to the endorsements and ensuing letters to the editor, the Committee not only worked to increase open housing but also to encourage productive conversations about race in the town and generate support for a more inclusive community.

While conversation about housing was one thing, some residents were not so keen on the idea of actually taking action. Another Bulletin letter signed by “Mr. Gross” said the Committee’s mission was “certainly laudable” and worthy of support; however, open housing, he said, was “forced housing,” and he called it “aggressive.” Gross argued that a petition circulated by the Committee in support of open housing was full of signatures of people who felt pressured to sign but did not openly want Black people in town and that Black people would feel unwelcome if they came. He argued that a cultural shift was necessary–but one that stopped short of any concrete change.

Another resident, Mrs. Virginia Perry, had a letter published in the same issue questioning the purpose of the Committee altogether. Her letter reflected the attitude that if Black people wanted to move to Wilton they would have already done so–a perspective that ignored the systemic barriers that prevented Black people from being able to. “Why seek out and invite any people to live here who have shown no desire to do so?” she wrote, before taking it one step further, asking, “Why now invite trouble to Wilton?”

Besides individual protests against their efforts, the committee also faced other disadvantages, as detailed in the aforementioned October 1963 workshop the Committee held with Earle and state Civil Rights Commission representative Isadore Goldstein. The state Commission’s task, according to the speakers, was to enforce Connecticut’s Civil Rights laws; however, the commission was limited in the actions it could take. For one thing, it was short-staffed, but it also could only act on existing civil rights law enacted by the state, as “no effective legislation” could be implemented by Connecticut towns. According to the Bulletin‘s coverage on the meeting, Goldstein described other difficulties the commission faced, including complaints about discriminatory events often being swept under the rug. Moreover, Earle was quoted in the newspaper calling the zoning in Connecticut towns “discriminatory in nature,” and something that restricted poorer families of color to less well-to-do areas.

Although the Wilton Committee for Open Housing faced resistance, it also had its defenders. In the same July 1963 issue in which the Redding arson was discussed, a writer named Mr. Green criticized the views expressed by Douglass, Perry, Gross and others in a letter to the editor called, “Time to Stop Making Excuses, Mr Green Avers.” He wrote that they did not understand the true severity of the issue when it came to what he called “Wilton and the Race Question,” identifying “economic excuses” for the oppression of Black Americans as the “most immoral, unjust and cruel ones of all.” He then questioned the opponents’ morals:

“I wonder if these writers really grasp what an enormous appalling, outrageous and horrible evil that racial discrimination is. How can people be so insensitive to the suffering and injustice that have been inflicted on the Negro? How can people be so concerned about a possible loss in property values when the human values at stake are a million times more important?”

Green’s letter applauded the Wilton Committee for Open Housing for forcing Wilton to talk about race when they would otherwise not have to, and to acknowledge the turbulence of the time and the town’s role in it. He wrote of his hope that the Committee would bring more Black families to Wilton, which he said would make it “a much better place to live.”

The following month, the Committee again took to the Bulletin to implore the community to sign a pledge–a “simple sentence stating that they would not hesitate on grounds of race, creed, or color to welcome any new neighbor.” Answering their critics, the Committee members reiterated their mission as one of equality, and not what any of the other letters twisted it to be.

Responding directly using exact phrases from past letters written in opposition, the Committee members stated:

This is not a public breast-beating or forced housing or inviting trouble, and it is difficult to understand how anyone could think it is.
This is standing up and being counted with regard to the principle of equal opportunity to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. It is a small start toward hastening the day when all of us–including those of all races, religions and ethnic origins–will try to act as though we regarded all men as being created equal. It is a step toward the day when such an attitude will be as natural as breathing:  as natural as it is now for many of us to harbor, consciously or subconsciously prejudices or fears or ego-bolstering feelings of superiority with regard to ethic or religious groups which differ from your own.”

The Committee’s plea was successful:  500 Wiltonians signed the pledge as of 1964, which prompted the president of the NAACP himself to thank the Committee, as described in a Wilton Bulletin article. In a letter the Bulletin reprinted, the president called the signatories “very encouraging” and on the “side of the right in the area of open housing.” He connected how housing and education were inextricably linked, and how the North at large was perpetuating the problem.

It’s quite obvious to me that you are fully aware of the epidemic that has spread through our northern cities. The ghetto-like approach fashioned for certain people when it comes to a place to live. The pattern of course is responsible for most of our existing problems regarding school racial imbalance.”

Housing in Wilton:  Post-Civil Rights to Now

Despite any progress made in Wilton during the years of the Civil Rights Movement, in the years that followed Wilton was nowhere near rid of racism and bias, on both a cultural and structural, systemic level.

In terms of culture, the events and voices of the Civil Rights Movement did not ring true with everyone. In 1971, F. Clerc Ogden voiced his opinion that minstrel shows should return. In an October 20, 1971 letter to the editor to the Bulletin, Ogden reminisced about the old days.  “The old drugstore was well decorated and the minstrel show crowded. Those were the days of real fun and if anyone took himself too seriously the fireman lampooned him and cut him down to size. ‘Doc’ Stivers was one of the leaders in this worthy plan, and the town could do with a lot of it today.” Ogden, according to a 1938 Bulletin article, had written verses of minstrel shows in the past.

Though the date on the letter may seem shocking, the racial prejudice and white privilege seeped deeper into Wilton’s culture–in more ways than just letters.

As one of the first Black families to move to Wilton in the early 1950s, Doug and Betty Jones were very active and involved in the community over the years, and were in a position to become prescient observers of life in Wilton. Doug told GMW that the lack of affordable housing was a huge barrier to Black families wishing to make Wilton their home, (adding that it still is a high hurdle to overcome today. According to census data, the median value of housing in Wilton from 2014-2018 is $798,700.)

According to Russell’s book about the Wilton’s history, the town acknowledged a growing need for more affordable housing to go along with increasing housing costs–and not just for people of color, but also for seniors, members of Wilton’s workforce and others who preferred smaller homes.

After the Planning and Zoning Commission finalized multifamily zone regulations in 1969, the first condominium development plan was brought to the town in the 1970s and was built in 1973 (what’s now part of Wilton Crest). In 1977 sewer lines were installed, enabling more condos and apartments to be built–450 units over the next 20 years, mostly in the Wilton Center River Road area. More affordable multifamily housing developments were developed in the 1980s.

Just how quickly did housing in Wilton become more expensive? The average home price grew from $57,500 in 1970 to $175,000 in 1980, and $405,000 in 1990, a number the book said included condos.

The state was putting pressure on towns to create more moderate-priced housing, even threatening legislative enforcement. In 1970, several residents formed a group called Wilton Housing to create more affordable housing in Wilton–among them was Doug Jones. In 1973, a study by a town-appointed committee concluded that 50 acres of Schenk’s Island could be a location for affordable housing by a private developer–but no developer came forward, and the plan fell apart.

Similarly, in 1986 a group called the Wilton Housing Study Committee looked to acquire leftover land that the CT Department of Transportation previously had claimed for Super 7, hoping to reserve it for affordable housing. However, even after that land was obtained, no developer jumped at the opportunity until 1994 when Fairfield 2000 made a plan for seven deed-restricted affordable homes in three locations in town–after Connecticut’s state legislators passed a law in 1992 calling for more affordable housing in suburbs like Wilton.

That legislation was the CT General Assembly’s 8-30g Affordable Land Use Appeals Act, often referred to as just 8-30g. It put into play another dynamic. The statute mandates that at least 10% of a CT municipality’s housing supply must qualify as deed-restricted, affordable housing (defined as housing available to persons who make 80% or less of Connecticut’s median income)–or else developers could propose projects with at least 30% affordable units that would override local zoning regulations on size and density. The law makes it very difficult for a town to deny an affordable housing development plan–even if the plan does not follow local zoning laws.

By filing under CGA 8-30g, a builder could protest any town denial of an application;  virtually the only way a town could turn down an application was if town officials could prove the project jeopardized public health and safety.

In Wilton, the Avalon Bay apartment complex on River Rd. was built under 8-30g in 1993, followed by Village Court in 1995 and Avalon Springs in 1996. But this doesn’t mean Wilton hasn’t pushed back. As a town that takes much pride in its historic structures, open spaces and typical New England features–what’s often cited as “character”–many affordable housing projects proposed under the 8-30g act have resulted in strong opposition.

For instance, in 2015, developer Patrick Downend proposed building a 25-apartment unit on a one-acre parcel at 44 Westport Road, of which six units would be affordable, to the outrage of many neighbors. Not only would the plan have resulted in demolishing a historical building, but they asserted that wedging a 25-unit building onto one acre would have a negative impact with increased traffic as a safety concern and potential environmental implications from a building and parking lot effectively covering almost 100% of the land. An action group was formed on Facebook to protest the proposal, and it consumed town dialogue for days.

The opposition mounted was significant enough to nudge Downend to give up the property later that year and strike a deal with the town to purchase a one-acre town-owned lot near the Wilton Train Station.

But before he made that deal with the town, Downend spoke to GMW about the matter. He called affordable housing “a gigantic misunderstanding” and scoffed at the misconceptions people had about it.

People are scared and they think it’s other things–‘projects’ or low-income, or whatever. It’s a completely different animal. Sixty percent of my tenants are typically seniors on fixed incomes or divorced, single parents; I’ve had a baker, a bicycle mechanic. These are people who need a low-priced option. It’s about putting quality of life ahead of the financial limitations that a lot of people encounter in life,” Downend said.

State legislators argued in 2017 that the 10% requirement of the 8-30g statute is almost impossible for a small-town like Wilton, which is significantly built out already, to meet. Other towns in Connecticut agreed, and in 2017, state legislators overruled a veto by Governor Daniel Malloy to fix the 8-30g statue, making it easier for towns to work towards affordable housing themselves. The law–PA 17-170, An Act Concerning the Affordable Housing Land Use Appeals Procedure–lowered the threshold of how many affordable housing units the town had to be working on in order to have a moratorium on 8-30g applications, making it easier for a small town like Wilton to establish affordable housing in accordance with its existing zoning laws, and not fear 8-30g development.

Wilton’s last moratorium temporarily halting 8-30g housing applications expired on December 28, 2019. Within a month the town received an application for affordable housing units at 3 Hubbard Road. In January, First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice said she expected there to be many more to follow.

Making the Effort to Improve

In Downend’s take as the developer over the failed 44 Westport Rd. endeavor, he emphasized that no matter how hard it may seem to achieve, the need for affordable housing in Wilton could not be greater.

This project is going to bring an opportunity for a really nice place to live, for all the people that need it, and there is an abundance of need.  That building will fill up before it’s finished; that is the kind of demand there is for that product for seniors and people in town who are not in the top 1-percent. The neighbors have to decide if they want to welcome these neighbors and embrace the notion that we can all live together.” 

The objections Wilton–and other similar towns–typically bring up against affordable housing proposals have historically pointed to obtrusiveness of the building design, lack of New England character or loss of historic integrity, or weakening local control over planning and zoning. Critics say those reasons mask systemic bias and racism–that anytime the word “character” comes up, it’s really a code for who residents want living in their town, and who they don’t.

Proponents of more direct state legislation to change local zoning say that existing policies–things like Wilton’s two-acre, single-family zoning–are impediments to eliminating systemic racism and segregation. That whether or not the policy is explicitly racist, the end result actively puts Black Americans at a significant disadvantage.

“We know that safe, quality, multifamily, and affordable housing can help undo this system of segregation and are central to providing Black Americans access to economic and social mobility. The problem is that the overwhelming majority of Connecticut towns use their zoning codes (a practice known as “exclusionary zoning”) to actively prevent construction of this housing and, in turn, block Black families from moving in,” wrote New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker in the CT Mirror.

In 2019, the town adopted an updated Plan of Conservation and Development (POCD) that recognized the need to diversify Wilton’s housing stock in order to accommodate all life stages, including its workforce, families with children, single people, and empty nesters. The POCD spells out the goals of providing a greater variety of housing sizes, styles, and price points and modifying the Town’s zoning regulations to encourage and incentivize more development.

Wilton’s current town officials are working toward doing just that–even with the varied housing that already exists, they still acknowledge the town needs more options and more units. At their most recent meeting, Wilton’s Board of Selectmen members unanimously approved a proposal from the first selectwoman to create a new Wilton Housing Committee as an important step.

According to Vanderslice, the committee would “…identify and document diverse housing needs. People tend to think of us as just a single-family housing town, but we do have a diverse range of housing, including townhomes, condos, accessory dwellings, residential apartments, and housing specifically for seniors and individuals with disabilities. We also have affordable single-family homes, affordable rental apartments, and affordable senior and housing for individuals with disabilities. The POCD does recognize that we need diverse housing options to ensure we retain residents as they age and attract new residents and [provide] housing for those who work in Wilton or around the area and to ensure the economic vitality of the community.”

In addition to specifying that at least one member should have relevant real estate experience, Vanderslice also noted, “Of course, …we want a diverse mix in terms of all demographics.”

Moving forward on the issue now is fortuitous, as there’s been renewed attention at the state level on the topic of affordable housing. Most prominent is Desegregate CT, an ad-hoc organization that formed in late spring to advocate for changes in land use laws in the CT legislature–laws they say are a primary driver for segregation. Some legislators are also interested in bringing up housing reform when the assembly returns in either September or next January.

Town Planner Michael Wrinn referred to those efforts when he supported Vanderslice’s housing committee proposal.

“With everything that you’ve heard that’s going on up in Hartford. I think it’s very important that we get a handle on what [housing] we have, where we can go and also show that we are doing something towards that end,” he said, explaining there was one additional significant reason.

“We have a requirement 8-30j–different from 8-30g–that requires an affordable housing plan by the town in two years. Anything that this [Wilton] housing group will do can be melded into that. And we’re a step ahead of the game if we do have that work done.”

Selectman Ross Tartell agreed:  “It’s critical to the future of our town and the future of our society to create a world that people can live here. And a range of people can live here comfortably.”

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great series of articles. I grew up in Wilton from 1958-1970 starting 3rd grade in Mrs Yates class at Center School and graduating from Wilton Senior High School in 1968. I was confirmed at the Wilton Congregational Church in 1965. I lived with my aunt and uncle who had moved to Wilton in 1955 just after the flood.
    My aunt was a nurse who took care of elderly residents in Wilton. Her first patient was Mr. Schenck. My brothers and I spent a lot of time at the Schenck estate before we moved to Wilton from NYC. She worked for a Dr who told her stories of what is was like for a Jewish Dr to start a practice in Wilton. I was aware of bigotry toward Jews. I remember Jews could not belong to the Riding Club and Protestants did not belong to Rolling Hills Country Club. I remember a time, 1967?, when the Congregational Church lost a good number of the congregation because one of the ministers at the time adopted a young black girl.
    My aunt told me stories that the Dr had told her about going to visit patients in the 1950s clandestinely so neighbors would not see him going into the house and patients parking behind the building where he practiced so nobody could see them. This was hard for my aunt because she was from Denmark and had lived through the Nazi occupation and had been involved in the underground.
    For me it was a perfect little town in the country. We lived on 3 acres of land where I was able to learn to ski and skate on the pond, go fishing, swim in the river and gravel pits and play Little League and Babe Ruth League baseball. I knew it wasn’t a perfect town for some people but it always appeared to me that the Jones were welcome and accepted in Wilton. I had never heard the story before of how the Jones were able to purchase their house.
    I left Wilton in 1970 but Wilton has never left me.
    Thank you for a great series at a perfect time.

  2. Thank you for this series. We have much to learn from our past and many areas/opportunities to make positive changes for a more equitable community. I am curious about this writer’s view and town leader’s views related to school regionalization and systematic racism.

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