Newton may change ‘local preference’ policy for affordable housing applicants

The city of Newton is considering a policy change to expand the racial diversity of its affordable housing after studying affordable housing lotteries at three local developments, including Trio in Newtonville. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Newton officials may change its “local preference” policy for affordable housing applicants in the city, after a recent study showed the rules benefited white people more than people of color.

The current policy sets aside 70 percent of affordable units for residents, people who work for the city and public schools, employees of local businesses, and families with children in the city’s schools.

A city-commissioned study of three recent housing developments found that selection rates in the local preference pool were higher for white applicants seeking affordable units than for minority applicants.

The change proposed by city housing officials and political leaders comes as Newton examines how the city can create more access to housing for people of color, spurred in part by the murder of George Floyd last year by a Minneapolis police officer.

City councilors are considering changing the policy to reduce the percentage of units reserved for local preference applicants, according to Susan Albright, the City Council president.

“It’s a moral, ethical question: We want to do our part to serve the community at large,” said Albright, who favors the change. “We are not an island ... It just feels right to do what we can for people in need.”

Albright added that she wants to make sure an updated measure will protect local people with disabilities, and give them a greater opportunity to find affordable housing in Newton.

The existence of local preference policies has long been a concern to housing advocates, said Thomas Callahan, executive director of the Massachusetts Affordable Housing Alliance.

“There is not a strong justification for it,” said Callahan, whose group has called for the elimination of local preference policies throughout the state. “It’s not a welcome sign.”

The local preference policy is part of Newton’s inclusionary zoning ordinance, and applies to any project with two or more units reviewed by the City Council for a special permit, according to Albright.

It is expected that projects proposed under the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law — which are reviewed by the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals — would also mirror any changes to the local preference policy, she said.

The ability for communities to set a local preference policy for affordable housing has been part of the state’s Chapter 40B affordable housing law for decades, and the state Department of Housing and Community Development offers guidelines on eligible groups, according to the city.

The state law allows cities and towns to set aside up to 70 percent of affordable units in a housing development for members of local preference groups. The remaining units are available to any income-eligible applicants.

Because the number of applicants far outstrips the supply of affordable units, lotteries are used to select eligible applicants from both groups. The study in Newton found there were 1,157 applications for just 71 affordable units available in three developments.

Concerns that Newton’s rule created a barrier to people of color touched off a reexamination of the regulation by the city’s Planning Department. The Newton Housing Partnership, an advisory panel to city leaders, called on officials to eliminate the local preference for affordable housing.

The policy, the partnership told Mayor Ruthanne Fuller in 2020, “perpetuates a racist housing system that gives significant preferential access to white households, while drastically limiting opportunities for people of color to move to Newton.”

Nearly 74 percent of the city’s residents are white, according to a 2019 US Census estimate. Asian residents make up nearly 14.8 percent of the population, Hispanic and Latino residents about 4.9 percent, and Black residents 3 percent, according to the Census data.

Before the pandemic, the state already was in dire need of affordable housing; now as the health crisis drags on, housing costs continue to soar and many have seen their livelihoods slashed in the economic fallout.

Callahan said the state and local communities should be making it easier for people to find affordable housing where they can and not create barriers. Given the demographic differences between communities in Massachusetts, he said, there is also a racial component to local preference policies.

“It definitely can make it more challenging for a person of color applying in a predominantly white suburb,” Callahan said. “There are just less units they can compete for.”

The issue has been raised in other communities, including Brookline, where local leaders reduced their town’s preference policy from 70 percent to 25 percent of units last year, according to Roger Blood, the chairman of Brookline’s Housing Advisory Board.

A review in Brookline found the earlier policy reduced the probability of qualified Black and Hispanic applicants from securing an affordable housing unit in the town, he said.

“This was clearly an impediment to realizing a more diverse population of eligible applicants for the affordable housing,” Blood said.

A spokeswoman said the Department of Housing and Community Development does not track the statewide demographics of people who secure affordable housing through local preference policies.

In Newton, the city review conducted earlier this year on local preference policy examined the affordable housing lotteries for three developments: Trio and 28 Austin Street in Newtonville, along with Hancock Estates in Chestnut Hill.

The city’s Planning Department, in a report to city councilors, said that applicants who qualify for the local preference category are “given two bites at the apple” in the affordable housing lottery process: First through the smaller local preference pool, and again in the general group of applicants.

Though white households made up 51 percent of the local preference pool of applicants, they represented a greater proportion of the households that were able to secure affordable units, according to the report.

The report said 44 of the 61 affordable rental units leased at the time of the study went to local preference applicants, and 61 percent of those apartments went to white households. Of the remainder, 16 percent went to Hispanic and Latinx households, 14 percent to Black households, and 7 percent to Asian households.

The Planning Department, in a separate memo to city councilors last month, said the correlation between Newton’s 70 percent local preference policy and the percentage of minorities who sign leases for affordable units “sheds light on the need to enact a change to the long-standing requirement.”

Albright said many of her colleagues support changing the policy, and she hopes to have a vote before the end of the current City Council term in December.

“I think Newton cares about the larger community beyond its borders,” Albright said. “Lowering this percentage would still allow people of Newton to have a preference, but would broaden our field to help address the problems of housing in the larger community.”

Continue reading for just $1
Only $1 for 6 months of unlimited access to Globe.com
Get access now
Thanks for reading Globe.com
Access unlimited articles for only $1.
Get access now