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Zoning laws, racial covenants, and segregation in Greater Boston explored in new report

Homes line Davis Avenue in Brookline, where racial covenants in 1843 once prohibited property sales to "any negro or native of Ireland.” A new report from Boston Indicators outlines Greater Boston's use of zoning as a means of racism and class exclusion over the past century.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Massachusetts has an extensive history of using racial covenants and exclusionary zoning policies to keep people of color out of certain communities, according to a new report released Wednesday that aimed to trace the roots and causes of Greater Boston’s stark racial segregation in a way few studies have before.

The report uses community planning documents, state archival records, and news archives to explore how cities and towns made zoning an effective tool in denying opportunities to people of color, religious minorities, immigrants, families with school-aged children, and “outsiders.”

The report comes as policymakers have proposed a series of housing reforms, including doing away with exclusionary zoning rules, to confront a housing crisis that has helped make Greater Boston one of the country’s most segregated metropolitans even today.


“These are challenging times, but understanding how we got here and getting a grip on the complexity [of zoning] should help us forge solutions,” said Amy Dain, the author of the report, “Exclusionary By Design: An Investigation of Zoning’s Use as a Tool of Race, Class, and Family Exclusion in Boston’s Suburbs, 1920 to Today.”

The report was commissioned by Boston Indicators, the research center of The Boston Foundation, and is part of a yearslong research initiative to explore the root causes of the region’s stark economic inequalities, said Luc Schuster, executive director of Boston Indicators.

The findings were presented during a Zoom webinar that Boston Indicators hosted Wednesday.

Long before zoning was used to shut out marginalized groups, Boston’s suburbs used racial covenants and real estate ads to keep their communities white and Protestant, according to the report. In 1843, for instance, covenants for properties in Brookline’s Linden Park neighborhood prohibited sales to “any negro or native of Ireland.” Real estate listings printed in the Globe in the early 20th century advertised “restricted American neighborhoods.”


The first instance of zoning in Massachusetts occurred in 1920 and had the straightforward purpose of designating certain areas for specific land uses. In the post-World War II era, however, it was advertised as a way to lift the social status of communities and to help boost local budgets. By using zoning to limit development on one-acre lots to single-family homes, for instance, towns catered to the most affluent buyers — white people.

No zoning in Massachusetts has directly addressed race, Dain said. But, she added, “when towns zone out diverse housing, they zone out diverse people.”

From the 1950s to the early 1970s, some suburban communities, such as Braintree, Waltham, and Rockland, began to welcome the construction of larger apartments, seeing them for their economic benefits, Dain said. Some of the decades-old apartment complexes still exist.

But then, amid the civil rights activism of the 1960s, including the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that was intended to outlaw housing discrimination, communities began to enact more exclusionary zoning, Dain said, what she dubbed, “The Big Downzone.”

“The ‘Big Downzone’ happened very suddenly, and intensely at a time of racial change, civil rights victories, and a growing call for desegregation of schools and neighborhoods,” Dain said.

For example, Weston and Wellesley outlined goals in master plans in 1965 to preserve the current makeup of their communities. At the time, both towns were 99 percent white.

Ted Landsmark, director of Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy, advised and edited the report. Dain’s findings reminded him of his struggles moving to Boston as a young Black professional in the 1970s, and the lack of “access to housing, residential, and education opportunities in [suburban] communities.”


“This just confirms what many of us in Greater Boston’s Black and brown communities have known for quite some time,” said Landsmark, who was the subject of the notorious, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo “The Soiling of Old Glory,” which showed him being assaulted with an American flag during protests over Boston’s desegregation of public schools.

Boston’s suburban communities have grown more diverse in recent years, the report states. But the diversity has been mostly driven by middle- and upper-class families of color who can afford the higher real estate prices. Low-income families and immigrants are still concentrated in more urban areas such as Gateway Cities.

Recently, some communities have looked at reforming their zoning laws to accommodate more development, but Landsmark said any efforts to address zoning changes today must go “beyond the lip service that many cities and towns have expressed with this issue in the past.”

“This is clearly a moment when we need to think very seriously not only about cultural change, but about legislative and policy change,” Landsmark said.

Dain and Landsmark agreed that zoning reform at the local level alone will not be enough to address the region’s housing needs, and statewide solutions are needed. They pointed to Chapter 40B, the state law that allows affordable housing developers to bypass local zoning laws in communities that do not have sufficient affordable housing stocks, and the MBTA Communities law, which mandates multifamily housing construction near some T stations.


“These reflect the need to create statewide incentives that can overcome local law resistance,” Landsmark said.

Tiana Woodard is a Report for America corps member covering Black neighborhoods. She can be reached at Follow her @tianarochon.