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EDITORIAL

As Trump stokes suburban fears, Mass. lawmakers chart a better path

Beacon Hill is poised to strike against the racist legacy of zoning laws that have long segregated communities in the Commonwealth.

The Newton Housing Authority's affordable two-bedroom rental apartment project on Wyman Street in Waban.
The Newton Housing Authority's affordable two-bedroom rental apartment project on Wyman Street in Waban.Gwyneth Burns

Who gets to live in America’s safest, healthiest, and most prosperous communities? Who gets to send their kids to the best public schools, walk their dogs in the best parks, breathe the freshest air?

That question is suddenly front and center in the 2020 presidential campaign — and, finally, after years of failed efforts, in the Massachusetts State House, where a long-debated proposal to weaken the ability of communities to exclude newcomers seems to be on the cusp of passage.

By seeing that effort through to completion in this session, Massachusetts lawmakers can both make the Commonwealth fairer to all its residents and take a timely stand against the president’s latest appeal to racism.

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At the national level, President Trump is rolling back regulations that were enacted by former president Obama meant to make communities more accessible to low-income people. Since geography determines so much about life in America, from schooling to availability of grocery stores, the Obama policy was a critical tool to address racial discrimination and segregation caused by a century of local and national housing policies designed to keep poor Black families out of more affluent white neighborhoods.

Not only did Trump end the Obama program, he’s also trying to turn his defense of suburbia into a campaign issue. In a tweet, he warned the “Suburban Housewives of America” that an administration headed by presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden would ruin their neighborhoods. Democrats, he said, would force suburbs to accept low-income neighbors who, the president maintained, would bring crime.

“People fight all of their lives to get into the suburbs and have a beautiful home,” he said after announcing the rollback of the Obama policy. “There will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs.”

One upside to Trump’s noxious rhetoric: It’s exposing the euphemisms often used to justify exclusive zoning in the suburbs, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, for what they are. Since zoning became legal in Massachusetts, in the early 20th century, a whole vernacular of doublespeak has developed to mask its racist origins and consequences — that homeowners just care about maintaining the bucolic character of their communities, for instance, or about keeping greedy developers at bay.

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When the state was considering zoning, at least one representative at the constitutional convention wasn’t fooled. “This resolution, while undoubtedly such a thing has never occurred to anybody who is interested in it, plainly would authorize the segregation of the Negro, for it authorizes the limitation of buildings according to their use to certain zones or districts,” noted Albert E. Pillsbury of Wellesley in 1918.

And indeed, exclusionary zoning — that is, rules on minimum lot sizes and building types that make it so expensive to build homes that the natural result is housing that’s out of reach for low-income residents — has been the driving force in racial segregation, here and across America. Landowners who might have built apartment buildings in the Concords or Newtons of the world, so that renters and low-income workers could live there alongside white-collar professionals, walking in the same parks and attending the same schools, were no longer allowed to. Chapter 40b, the so-called “anti-snob” law passed in the 1960s, allows developers to circumvent zoning under limited circumstances in towns and cities that don’t have enough affordable housing, but geographic segregation remains entrenched.

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The Obama policy ended by Trump would have challenged that legacy. And so would the Housing Choice legislation introduced by Governor Charlie Baker that is now, after years of wrangling, finally nearing the legislative finish line.

Both the House and Senate have passed versions of the bill as part of larger legislative packages; now a conference committee just needs to hash out the final legislation. It falls well short of what housing advocates once wished for, and indeed makes only one change. But it’s a big one: The bill would make it easier for towns and cities to relax their zoning restrictions by requiring only a simple majority in their local governing bodies instead of a two-thirds supermajority.

The governor introduced the legislation as an economic measure, and allowing more housing in more settings certainly has economic implications, too. Allowing multifamily housing that’s denser than allowed by current zoning, for instance, could both reduce its cost and lower the environmental burden. Allowing more housing of any type should moderate demand for existing homes, and thus relieve some of the upward pressure on the real estate market.

As it does, more and denser housing would also strike at one of the root causes of segregation. It’s certainly true, as critics have noted, that the new housing that might be built if Baker’s legislation passes probably wouldn’t be cheap at first and won’t, by itself, make communities more affordable or diverse. It took decades for exclusionary zoning to shape Massachusetts communities, and it may take decades to reshape them. But reducing the power of anti-housing voices at the local level would help start an overdue shift. As the president tries to stoke fears of change in suburbia, Massachusetts should send the message that it embraces a more equitable future.

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Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.