Last summer, a city staffer in Newton outlined one possibility to a group of councilors considering changes to the city’s antiquated and cumbersome zoning code. Those restrictions, dating back to 1953, are part of the reason that housing prices in the wealthy west-of-Boston suburb have soared to staggering levels: The median sale price for a single-family home is well over $1 million, and a 251-square-foot glorified shed recently listed for more than $400,000. Call it plutocratification: Newton’s gentry have been steadily priced out of the community they built, forced into the hinterlands of Needham or even Waltham, to make way for private equity barons. So what if, to encourage more housing production and eventually moderate prices, Newton were simply to allow two-family homes almost everywhere in the city?
Zoning bores most people. As the ensuing fallout showed, Newtonians are not most people.
The mere discussion of scrapping single-family-only zoning is, apparently, scarier to many Newton residents than a noisy leaf-blower and a Harvard rejection letter combined. Right Size Newton, the city’s most prominent anti-growth group, warned that such a change would make Newton (gasp) “effectively urban” and has endorsed a slate of growth skeptics in next week’s election. The fear that the council might be on the verge of radically reshaping Newton has become a dominating force in this year’s city council races, which have been increasingly nasty in the final days before the Nov. 2 election — nasty by Newton’s standards, anyway.
Campaign mailers have insinuated that in the next council term, councilors will consummate their dastardly plan to abolish single-family-only zoning. Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller, and city councilors endorsed by groups like Voters for a Vibrant Newton who are generally receptive to zoning reforms and denser housing, have gone on the defensive. They insist that the proposal was simply one idea to consider, no changes have been voted on or even formally proposed, there is no consensus around what changes to pursue, and that their critics are engaged in misleading fear-mongering by characterizing one idea floated at a meeting as an actual fully formed plan.
Fuller has gone a step further, telling the Globe editorial board in an interview last week that while zoning reforms are needed in the city, outright elimination of single-family-only zoning is off the table. She made a similar vow at a recent debate.
The frustration of city leaders who’ve slogged away at the tedious work of revamping zoning, only to see those efforts misrepresented, is understandable. But Fuller is making a mistake by renouncing the idea so forcefully, which only lends credence to the notion that there’s something terrifying about multifamily housing going up next door — or special about single-family-only zoning.
There’s a very good case that Newton, of all places, should allow two-family and multifamily homes (which, it’s important to emphasize, is not the same as requiring them). Single-family-only zoning rules, which prevent the construction of cheaper multifamily housing, have contributed to America’s residential segregation since their introduction in the 1920s. In a city that sometimes seems like it has more Black Lives Matter signs than actual Black people, you’d think the case for change would resonate.
Calling attention the racial implications of zoning, though, may be part of the reason the dispute has become so emotional in the first place. There are clearly plenty of people in Newton who perceive city leaders — their own elected officials — as having unfairly labeled them as racist, and say that innuendo is what has really inflamed politics in Newton. And that feeling is not confined to zoning.
For instance, Newton recently changed Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day while moving to create a separate Italian American heritage day. Some people of Italian descent perceived that as a slight, but say what also irked them was the perception that if they opposed ending Columbus Day, it could only mean they were bigots. Likewise, voters who are fond of single-family-only zoning have bristled at the suggestion that their view makes them racist. (Black millionaires are perfectly welcome in Newton, after all.)
As far as I’ve been able to tell, though, none of the candidates on the ballot next week have actually called their constituents racists. In a recent Facebook post, Save Nonantum PAC, which was formed after the Columbus Day controversy to defend Italian American heritage in the Nonantum neighborhood, said unnamed city councilors “ironically call us racist,” but when I asked the group for the names of the councilors who had insulted them in that way, a leader of the group, Fran Yerardi sent me examples of supporters of candidates who he says have called the group racist, and said that another councilor was present at a meeting where the group was called racist — a far cry from the “same city councilors that are working to silence us” saying it themselves, which is what the group’s Facebook post claimed.
If the political adage that perception is reality holds true even in Newton, then such details might not matter. Plenty of voters clearly feel that their leaders want to transform the city for the worse, all while tarring them as backward bigots. But if those feelings translate into a setback for zoning reform on Tuesday, the city is likely to change anyway — just the way it’s already changing, into an unaffordable sea of McMansions.
Alan Wirzbicki is Globe deputy editor for editorials. He can be reached at email@example.com.