Cities and towns have to do more to ease access to homeownership
It is reassuring that Massachusetts residents view racism as systemic as it applies to police reforms (”Support strong for Black activism,” Page A1, June 24), but police reforms are just one component of systemic racism. Here in Western Massachusetts, I have seen many protests made up of predominantly white crowds. But there is more that can be done by residents of the overwhelmingly white populations in the cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth in support of racial justice.
One measure of racial inequality is homeownership rates. Black homeownership in this country fell to its lowest point since 1970 during the second quarter last year. Economic inequality disproportionately affects minorities just as the coronavirus has, and Massachusetts has some of the worst economic inequality in the country.
The housing shortage has driven up prices, thereby putting the economic opportunity that homeownership creates out of reach for minorities. Governor Baker’s Housing Choice bill has been stagnant in the Democratic-controlled state Legislature for several years. The bill would reduce the voting threshold, from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority, for cities and towns to make the zoning changes needed to increase housing affordability — that is, if they chose to do so.
Many communities have zoning rules that have an adverse impact on housing affordability and opportunity, such as limited duplexes in favor of single-family homes. The goal of most zoning rules is to preserve the character of their neighborhoods.
Whether the intended purpose of such exclusionary zoning was motivated by racism is irrelevant. The question is whether the white majority of the state’s cities and towns are willing to implement the needed changes in their own communities for more diverse and inclusive populations. If the Legislature is a barometer, the answer is no.
While it’s nice that most people think systemic racism is a problem, we need to be willing to take the appropriate action to solve the problem at home if we are to have the courage of our convictions. Otherwise, racial justice protests are just talk.
The writer is a real estate broker and agency owner.
One way to be an ally: Push for passage of Housing Choice bill
In “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” Richard Rothstein notes that, in 1917, the Supreme Court invalidated explicitly racial zoning laws. Several cities tried to get around the ruling with ordinances providing that Black people could move into a white neighborhood only if a majority of its existing residents gave their approval. Putting Black rights up to a white vote strikes the modern observer as shockingly retrograde. Yet how different is it, really, from our own scheme of home rule and zoning?
Under Mass. General Laws Chapter 40A, changes to municipal zoning laws, and the granting of “special permits” designed to site denser and less expensive housing, all require a public hearing at which “interested persons” can be heard. Notice of such hearings must be given by newspaper, by local posting, and optionally by mail to “nonresident property owners.” There is no provision for notice to those who would like to live in the town but are shut out under the existing zoning laws. Moreover, all changes in law and special permits must be adopted by a two-thirds vote of the applicable governing body.
Granting the existing residents of a town the power to decide who can become their neighbor is a major contributor to the racial and economic segregation of our metro areas. Governor Baker’s Housing Choice initiative would modestly lessen this force by making local zoning decisions subject to a simple majority.
Are you looking for a concrete way to be an antiracist ally once the air has gone out of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations? Call your legislators in support of the Housing Choice bill. Whether it passes, the next time a 40B development or an inclusive zoning bylaw comes up for a vote in your town, work to bring nonresident “interested persons” out to the hearing, and organize in support of a yes vote. Run for a seat on the planning board or zoning board of appeals.
Our suburbs were designed as enclaves of white privilege, but their residents can change that.