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Newton takes aim at its history of single-family zoning

West Newton Square from above in 1920, before the city passed its first zoning laws.
West Newton Square from above in 1920, before the city passed its first zoning laws.Historic Newton at the Jackson Homestead

For nearly a century, Newton has been a city of 13 villages, parkland, tree-lined carriageways — and predominantly single-family homes.

Newton’s neighborhoods today reflect decisions made when the fast-growing city passed its first zoning ordinance in 1922.

Now, as Greater Boston faces a housing crisis — soaring costs, limited supply, and tremendous demand — Newton is debating whether those rules should be rewritten to correct the legacy of income inequality and racial segregation that critics say 20th-century zoning left behind.

It’s a question echoing across the country, from Los Angeles to Seattle to Minneapolis, as cities reexamine who can or cannot afford to live within their boundaries.

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Solomon Greene, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Research to Action Lab and the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center based in Washington, D.C., said that across the country, zoning had dual purposes from the beginning: to preventing nuisances and to strictly enforcing racial and economic segregation by blocking multifamily housing.

“Cities, like Newton, are starting to realize that their exclusionary policies are not working for their current residents,” Greene said. “And they’re certainly not working for the people who want to move in.”

The current proposal in Newton would enable property owners in all residential areas to subdivide existing homes, by right, if they provide sufficient parking and an average of 1,200 square feet per unit, for up to six units of rental apartments or condos. A newly constructed home could have two units, by right, under the proposal, though the new structure could be no larger than the size of a single-family home allowed in that neighborhood.

“I know that Newton’s strength derives from being a welcoming and inclusive community, and so we must ensure our zoning reflects and promotes these values,” Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in a statement late last month.

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“Zoning decisions have been inextricably linked to the level of income inequality and racial segregation we face in Newton and in Greater Boston. The City Council is rightly exploring a range of options for our updated zoning to remedy our ‘opportunity’ gap,” she said.

The measure is designed to encourage the preservation of existing homes while creating new housing, according to Barney Heath, director of Newton’s Planning and Development Department.

“There are existing buildings in neighborhoods that contain multiple units that fit in quite well,” Heath said in an interview.

In September, the median sale price of a single-family home in Newton was $1.1 million, and $655,000 for a condo, according to realtor.com.

The mayor said she hopes to spur energy-efficient construction; discourage large, out-of-scale new homes; diversify housing options; and offer housing to residents with a broader range of incomes. She anticipates a City Council vote in the fall or winter of 2021 on a new zoning ordinance, she said.

Not everyone in Newton agrees that zoning changes will achieve the mayor’s goals.

Randall Block, with RightSize Newton, a community organization that has been critical of larger developments in the city, called zoning a “weak tool” for creating affordable housing. Additional affordable housing will require government subsidies or other financial support to encourage its development, he said.

“If your goal is to create more housing units, OK, that will do that,” Block said of the proposed zoning changes. “The market is telling us right now that those units are not going to be less expensive on a square-foot basis.”

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Late last month, a group of seven architects told city councilors in a letter that by-right subdivisions of existing homes would “certainly affect” density, green space, and parking. They also said the rezoning would be significantly more restrictive and complex than current rules, spur property speculation, and encourage more demolition of homes.

“We reluctantly have concluded that the proponents of rezoning have no intention of considering facts and evidence of the potentially broad, negative impact that this plan could have on homeowners, the aesthetic character of the city and potentially on property values,” the architects' letter said.

In a recent statement, Heath said the Planning Department had sought the input of architects, developers, and the building community, and plans to schedule another meeting again this fall.

Zoning rules came to Massachusetts in the early 1920s, when communities such as Cambridge, Brockton, and Brookline began implementing local measures. They were designed to keep residential areas apart from manufacturing and business use, and to limit the height and size of new buildings.

In Newton, the city’s 1922 debate echoed today’s concerns: How much development should the city allow, and where? And then, as now, there was conflict over whether Newton should be affordable to a wide range of residents, or be reserved for those who could afford a house with a yard and a driveway.

Then-Mayor Edwin O. Childs signed Newton’s first zoning ordinance late in December 1922. In a speech published early the following year by the Newton Graphic newspaper, Childs said Newton needed more homes for young married people “more than anything else.”

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Childs also noted that the “sort of house” doesn’t make or break a city: “All of the good people are not found in single dwellings.”

During a public hearing, one man argued that the city had to “protect itself” against apartment houses, or they would “see the end of Newton.”

A letter writer to the local paper during the 1922 zoning debate warned against the influx of so-called “Flat Dwellers” moving into Newton, which risked becoming a “garbage city” with the new residents.

Property owners created Newton, he said. “The man who owns his own home, who has a bit of garden, who takes pride in a neat and beautiful residence, is the man who has made Newton the Garden City.”

The results of that debate nearly a century ago continue to affect daily life in Newton: Residents today live in a city that more or less neatly fits into the contours of an early city zoning map.

Denser housing is concentrated along the railroad, now the MBTA commuter rail. And the two large developments that have been at the center of its housing debate — at the Riverside station and in Newton Upper Falls — are located in areas designated long ago for multi-unit residential, business, or commercial use.

Newton itself has changed in the past century: Its population now numbers more than 88,000, according to the US Census, nearly double the 46,000 who lived there in 1920. A century ago, the city was nearly all white, according to Census records.

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Now, about 15 percent of residents are of Asian descent, while 5 percent are Latino, and Black residents make up about 4 percent.

But Fuller notes that the city’s population is increasingly less economically diverse due to the cost of housing.

“Given today’s hyper housing market prices, solutions require a certain amount of change to zoning ordinances if we want housing affordable to more people in our almost fully built out City,” Fuller said in her statement.

Greene, with the Urban Institute, said as Newton officials consider changing its zoning, they should also look at other measures to encourage affordable housing development, such as expedited review of projects that include affordable units and other incentives.

“What can the city do to make sure that the process speaks to some of the concerns that critics have raised — that if we build more housing, it’s just going to go to the high end?” he said. “It’s within the power of Newton to adopt policies to make sure that’s not the case.”



John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.