Unreal Real Estate

Unreal Real Estate

What is it about real estate that often brings out the worst in people? Robert Frost famously mused about why his New Hampshire neighbor was so determined to fence his property off when natural forces and common sense conspired against the idea.

In "Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate," Connecticut journalist Lisa Prevost takes on the notion that "Good fences make good neighbors." Indeed, she builds a compelling case that New England's restrictive zoning is not simply bad for the people who want in, but also for the communities that are trying to keep outsiders out.

Two of the six examples of grass roots intolerance that Prevost chronicles are in Connecticut: the tony towns of Darien and Roxbury. In fact, the author got the idea for the book in 2005 while covering a contentious zoning hearing on affordable housing in Darien for The New York Times. She termed it, among other things, "a startling display of rude behavior."

Despite being nestled between two diverse communities, Norwalk and Stamford, Darien is the "whitest" and wealthiest (as of 2010) suburb along Connecticut's Gold Coast, with a black population of just half of a percentage point and a median income of $185,619, according to the author. By contrast, the percentage of African-Americans in the two neighboring towns is 22 percent.

In Roxbury, where three-acre housing lots had been de rigueur, the town opted in 2008 for four-acre zoning. Indeed, the average housing lot size in the Northeast of one acre is more than twice the national average.

Prevost is an award-winning freelancer whose credits include The Boston Globe Magazine and Ladies' Home Journal. Her real estate odyssey meandered from Rhode Island north to Maine, encompassing five of the six New England states (Vermont gets a reprieve from her detailed and compelling analysis). She animates her brief with engaging and telling profiles of individuals on both sides of the barricades.

Prevost recently answered questions about her first book.

Q: Years ago, when I learned my current neighbors were building a house on the admittedly large lot next to my large lot, I thought there goes my Elysian tranquility. But today, I am unequivocally glad that they are there. Have you found that some communities come to that same realization about the changes they unsuccessfully opposed?
A. Yes and no. Certainly people get used to change, but that doesn't necessarily alter their fundamental attitudes. Here's an example: In my chapter on Ossipee, New Hampshire, I interviewed a woman of very modest means who lives just up the road from a small workforce housing development. She had strongly opposed the development when it was proposed. Since it had opened, however, none of what she feared had come to pass. The apartments weren't filled solely with "outsiders," it hadn't driven up education costs, and crime just wasn't a problem. She acknowledged all of this, as well as the local need for workforce housing. So, I asked, if she had it to do over again, would she still oppose the development? Her quick reply: Absolutely.

Q: You don't address it directly in the book, but do you think there is some primordial or tribal territorial imperative that drives us to be exclusive, to seek more space then we need, to be leery of those with whom we are not familiar?
A. I don't think the desire to live in a house on four acres is necessarily primordial — plenty of people are happy with much less. But certainly it is a natural human response to want to protect what you own. What I found is that people tend to let their imaginations run wild when coming up with reasons why multifamily housing is a threat. Or, in Roxbury's case, housing on less than four acres. Those fears aren't easily dispelled; they are often all bound up with bad associations with density, tradition-bound ideas about what is appropriate for a New England town, assumptions about the kind of people who live in such housing, and political objections to subsidized housing. In Easton, Massachusetts, for example, neighbors rose up against a proposed cottage community because, in their eyes, the dense design made it the equivalent of a trailer park.

Q: Or is there something in our modern culture that has made us less neighborly of late, as individuals and as whole communities?
A. Well, we are a politically polarized society these days and increasingly segregated by income. Those two trends don't do much to further inclusiveness. But then again, the "circle the wagons" mentality is nothing new — a few decades back, newcomers to Roxbury were talking about 15-acre zoning.

Q: You write that changing demographics and concern over climate change may be driving a more rational approach to zoning, housing policy, and land use. How so?
A. The demand for multifamily apartments and condos is expected to rise dramatically as the baby boom generation seeks to downsize, and the millenials strike out on their own. This younger generation seems to be partial to in-town living where they can walk to where they need to go, or hop on a train to take them there. Driving is less important to them -- and gas prices don't make it any more attractive. Further, many don't have the financial means to buy a big house in the burbs -- they are saddled with college debt. In addition to these demographic forces, more communities are recognizing that putting housing into downtown areas, near mass transit, can be a revitalizing economic force.

Q: What do you think is the single most glaring barrier to making our communities more inclusive and diverse?
A. Local control. Can I say that and still call myself a New Englander?

Q: How did you pick the examples in the book, other than the ones you covered as a journalist? Was it hard to narrow it down to six?
A. Each example highlights a different theme. I tried to put together an interesting mix. The Easton, Massachusetts, example revolves around fear of density, for example. Milbridge, Maine, on the other hand, concerns a backlash against Latino immigrants. I wouldn't say it was hard to narrow it down so much as it was a challenge to come up with a combination that wasn't repetitive.

Q: How come Vermont got a pass?
A. Sheer luck.

Q: New England, it seems, is considerably more restrictive than the rest of the country. Why is that?
A. Old habits die hard. We don't do change very well. And, of course, towns' reliance on property taxes to fund local schools makes homeowners hyper-sensitive to dense development that might bring in a lot of children.

Q: Darien now has public housing. Is it enough and will there be more?
A. Darien has had public housing since the 1950s. What's new is that the housing authority is in the process of rebuilding that housing and doubling the number of apartments to 106. It took them years to line up the necessary support, not to mention state funding. It's a big step for Darien. As to whether there will be more, who knows? Darien is one of the very few towns to have obtained a temporary moratorium from 8-30g applications, a somewhat controversial turn of events. But town leaders have said they will use the time to plan for future housing, so we'll see.

Q: How is the zoning where you live?
A. Fairfield has a decent mix of housing types, but like most of the towns in Fairfield County, it lags in rentals and affordable housing. And the same hysteria prevails. Just as I was finishing my book, in fact, I found a flyer in my mailbox warning of the need to "save our neighborhoods" from a proposal that neighbors were certain would be replicated all over town if approved.