LYNN — In February 2021, a coalition of city officials and residents set out on a goal to boost affordable-housing opportunities across this middle-class city to help address wealth disparities.
The effort quickly spurred reforms. By the next year, the city had created an affordable-housing trust fund that supports income-restricted housing construction and preservation. Then, the City Council approved an ordinance that requires most new housing to include some amount of affordable housing units.
The changes were limited to Lynn and are just one small step in a broader goal to close a yawning racial wealth gap. But they could also serve as a blueprint for other municipalities across the state looking to identify strategies to address disparities within their own communities.
Lynn was one of six communities selected three years ago to pilot a Racial Equity Municipal Action Plan, or REMAP, a grant-funded program that aims to help communities tackle deep-rooted inequities and narrow the state’s racial wealth gap through reforms at the most basic levels of local government.
“It takes all sectors to address the wealth gap, but government definitely has a role to play directly and indirectly,” said Ryan Curren, the housing, land, and development director for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, which helped coordinate the pilot.
The REMAP program was launched in 2020 amid the racial reckoning that followed George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. And today, advocates say the continuation of such programs is critical amid a political backlash against such initiatives, as conservative lawmakers across the country remove diversity, equity, and inclusion goals from their local bylaws.
The success of such programs may be difficult to measure in the short term, advocates say, but a long-term commitment at all levels of government could slowly level the playing field for all residents.
“Racial equity is not an easy, one-off process,“ said Raúl González, a senior planner for the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional agency that helps coordinate the program. “REMAP is really just the beginning stages of creating that space for addressing issues of inequity in housing, education, employment, criminal justice, and, of course, closing the racial wealth gap.”
The measure of success could also depend on the size of the community, and its demographics. In Natick, for instance, one of the six communities selected for the pilot program, most of the employees who were involved in the local initiative when it first began have left town government.
The town of 36,000 residents has seen some progress under REMAP — such as the hiring of a new equity, inclusion, and outreach officer, as well as a communications chief — but with a smaller government and town meeting structure, change has come about much slower, said Natick’s town administrator, James Errickson.
“Our progress is going to need to be measured in a much longer timeframe,” Errickson said.
In other communities such as Lynn, the initiative has led to some effective changes, including in the Police Department, which is requiring police officers to wear body cameras, an effort to address demands for police transparency and accountability.
The other communities involved in the pilot are Revere, Framingham, Bedford, and Stoughton.
Each community received $20,000 in technical assistance over two years, thanks to a mix of state and philanthropic funds provided to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
For the program’s first year of operation in 2021, each municipality identified root causes of inequities, and then crafted a mission statement for future policies to address. Throughout the process, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council coordinated virtual trainings for municipal employees on subjects ranging from how the racial wealth gap formed to ways to measure equity.
The program’s second year focused on how municipal governments can use data such as health equity statistics and demographics to better support its residents.
This fall, the municipalities are participating in a “peer exchange and training program,” which González called an opportunity for each municipality to compare their initiatives, so that they can learn from each other.
“You’re planting the seeds for having these conversations everywhere,” said Drew Russo, Lynn’s personnel director.
In addition to the housing reforms, Lynn also looked at internal changes it could make at City Hall. Then, the city hired translators in Spanish, Haitian Creole, Arabic, and Khmer, and translated job postings into different languages.
At Lynn City Hall, signs in English and Spanish direct visitors to different offices.
Faustina Cuevas, Lynn’s first-ever director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, said the seemingly small changes such as translation services, help “change our culture so that people know when they come in here, they feel like they belong.”
And she says she has seen some incremental success: As of September, 62 percent of city applicants were people of color, a jump from previous years. The share of percentage of employees of color has grown, too, from one in 10 employees in 2018 to one in three this year.
“Giving people a way to work where they live ... that’s one way” to help close disparities, Cuevas said.
Still, some participants, such as Jonathon Feinberg, former organizing director for the New Lynn Coalition, said there’s more work to do. REMAP allowed Lynn to reflect on its policies, he said, but the city needs to be more radical to address inequities.
“The stuff that we went in to fight for, we’re still fighting for,” Feinberg said.
Russo said progress can be slow, but it is real, saying the city is virtually “building the plan as you fly it.”
“We’re going to make mistakes,” Russo said. “But we’re going to continue moving forward so we really can advance a true vision of equity that lifts up everybody in this community.”