Last Tuesday, almost 60 percent of Newton voters supported the highly contentious Northland Newton Development. The mixed-use development — the largest in the city’s history — will provide 800 units of housing, 140 of which will be affordable. Housing advocates are celebrating the success of this referendum, and the infusion of housing it will provide in one of the region’s most advantaged suburbs.
The process of approving this much-needed housing, however, underscores the region’s broken housing policies. This project was supported by majorities of both residents and the City Council. It nonetheless had to go through an 18-month permitting process and survive a long sequence of hurdles.
Each public hearing empowered opponents to raise objections, slow down the project, and ultimately reduce the amount of housing that will be built. After the permit was granted by the city, the referendum election added an additional three month delay. While the process led to several greenspace and transit benefits for the area, it also increased the cost of development, and may make other housing developers wary of building affordable housing in Newton. This is a serious problem in a region that is facing a crushing housing shortage.
It should not require a well-organized campaign and the votes of 18,565 people to get one housing project approved. Representative government requires delegating responsibility to our elected officials. If we do not like how they have approached development decisions — or other matters — we can vote them out in the next election.
While being forced into a public referendum is somewhat unusual, the Northland development process is unfortunately all too typical in housing politics. Across the country, building new housing, both big and small, often requires multiple meetings across many months. Each of these meetings invites public comment, typically officially solicited from a proposed development’s neighbors.
On its face, public participation in development seems laudable, acting as an integral underpinning to local democracy. In practice, it does the opposite: Our research shows that public meetings empower an unrepresentative group of people who overwhelmingly oppose new housing. In our book “Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis,” coauthored with our colleague David Glick, we find that the people who participate in the permitting process are more likely to be white, male, older, and own a home than others in their community. Across Massachusetts towns, from 2015 to 2017, only 14 percent of those speaking at permitting meetings about multifamily housing were in favor of the development. As the Northland referendum shows, true public support is much higher.
Indeed, recent election results underscore an unfortunate liberal inconsistency on housing policy. On Super Tuesday, Democratic primary voters flocked to the polls to endorse candidates with robust plans to improve and increase the nation’s housing stock. The platforms of former vice president Joe Biden and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren all advocate for housing policies that would make it easier to build more housing. In Newton, more than 90 percent of voters cast a vote in the Democratic primary. A sizable portion of those voters opposed those same principles when it came to their own backyards: At least 35 percent of Newton Democratic voters opposed the Northland project.
Sanders’ positions illustrate this disjoint between national and local housing preferences. Sanders’ housing plan outlines regulatory and funding measures that would increase the supply of national housing for residents at a variety of income levels. Yet, he opposes local housing developments and endorses politicians in local races who fight critical zoning reform.
Facing a crippling housing crisis, our region needs to make it easier to build dense, multifamily homes. Newton’s support for new housing is commendable, but the process needs substantial reforms, such as Governor Baker’s proposal that allows local communities to grow flexibly and meet housing needs. It is imperative that local and state governments reduce the power of a vocal minority to hoard opportunity at the expense of homes for all.
Katherine Levine Einstein and Maxwell B. Palmer are assistant professors of political science at Boston University.