NEWTON — It was September, the height of a tense reelection campaign, and some people were very angry with Deborah Crossley.
The longtime Newton city councilor had spent years working on a plan to open the village centers to new housing development. Now she was at a community meeting in the Nonantum neighborhood, and residents were yelling at her, claiming it would change their neighborhood forever.
Before long, an anonymous account called Newton Needs Change started posting videos from the meeting online. One showed Crossley typing on her phone as someone talked. It was titled “Deb Crossley ignores residents pleas.”
Crossley, “was just taking notes on my phone,” she recounted of the incident.
But it was the beginning of a schism that would turn residents against her. There were more angry meetings. Signs depicting eight-story apartment buildings sprouted in front yards. And in the city election in November, Crossley and two other councilors who supported the zoning plan were voted out.
“There was a lot of attention devoted to making me the villain,” Crossley said. “I simply know that we as a city need to build more housing and help our village centers. It’s sad that makes me a villain.”
After the election, the City Council did pass a watered-down version of the original zoning, which officials say will comply with a state housing law that requires municipalities to allow for more housing, and theoretically unlock space for 8,745 additional units in Newton. It took another bruising political fight to get to that point, and like the recent teachers strike, divided neighbors and put the affluent city’s progressive values to the test.
But Crossley’s fate could ring out beyond Newton, highlighting just how challenging the next few years will be for the 150-plus communities in Eastern Massachusetts that must pass new land-use rules that make it easier to build housing, and for the local officials who take the lead. Some will risk their political careers.
“It is a difficult position to be in,” said Clark Ziegler, executive director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a quasi-state agency. “Zoning brings out strong feelings. In a place like Newton where you have a very locally driven city council, councilors are going to be more subject to neighborhood political pressure.”
Crossley, 70, has been active in Newton politics since the 1980s and was first elected to the City Council in 2009. Sharp and measured, Crossley spent her first years on the council leading an effort to fix Newton’s aging water systems. It was detailed, thankless work, but it painted her as a public servant in the eyes of her closest allies, not someone who focuses on splashy, big-picture issues.
“The job is to make the city better,” said City Councilor Susan Albright, who appointed Crossley to the zoning committee.
And while she was by no means an expert, Crossley early on saw how ever-increasing housing prices were transforming the city, so that many who grew up there — including her children — couldn’t afford to move back.
Newton already had some of the highest home prices in the state, and in 2007, a committee identified the village centers as the best place to add new housing. But there was little growth from that effort — only around 1,000 new homes between 2010 and 2020. By 2023, the typical house there sold for $1.7 million, roughly three times the statewide median.
Newton is a liberal city. Walk down any block, and you’ll see Black Lives Matter signs and LGBTQ+ flags. But housing doesn’t fit neatly within typical political boxes; the built environment is personal, and regardless of a place’s politics, tensions over development can burn hot.
And considering the hostile reaction to individual projects proposed, broader zoning changes seemed like political suicide. So for years, no one revisited the plan for more housing in village centers.
Then came the MBTA communities law in 2021, the state’s big, controversial swing at the housing crisis that requires communities on or near public transit to create zoning that allows for multifamily housing.
Crossley, who chaired the council’s zoning and planning committee, had already — in her pragmatic way — been working with the committee on a plan for new midsize multifamily housing in the village centers. And when the state handed Newton a deadline of December 2023 to craft an MBTA communities plan, that seemed a logical approach.
By October 2022 her committee had a framework: three new zoning districts in the village centers allowing 2½-to-4½-story buildings. It would have exceeded the state’s new zoning requirements by a large margin. There was some grumbling, but people seemed open to it.
That was until about a year later, when simmering discontent about the plan erupted into full-blown outrage at the meeting in Nonantum.
There were some important people in the room that night, including Fran Yerardi, a former restaurant owner who runs a local affiliate of HomeVestors of America — the “we buy ugly houses” company. Yerardi, something of a political figure in Nonantum, had organized neighbors against development before, and after that meeting, he reached out to connections across the city.
“This wasn’t just one village, this was people frustrated that their elected representatives weren’t listening to them,” Yerardi said. “One of the councilors said we’re not going to have backyard swing sets anymore. I’m like, are you kidding me? That’s why people move to Newton. We want the suburbs.”
Yerardi’s coalition included resident groups formed over the years to oppose specific development projects — including the huge mixed-use Northland project in Newton Upper Falls, which sparked a divisive referendum in 2020 — and new ones that cropped up to fight this specific rezoning.
Their strategy was to campaign against pro-rezoning candidates in November’s election, backing those who supported a “more modest” approach that would go no further than the state’s minimum requirements. They sent mailers claiming new development drives up housing prices and picketed with signs that depicted tall buildings in the village centers.
They also formed a political action committee with nearly the same name as Newton’s pro-housing coalition, Newton for Everyone. The PAC sent emails to residents, including the video of Crossley at the meeting in Nonantum and messages saying pro-rezoning councilors were bullying residents.
Yerardi contends his group did what was necessary.
“The only ones that were upset about it were the people that lost,” he said. “That’s sour grapes.”
Four of the slow-growth candidates Yerardi’s coalition backed won in the election, unseating three incumbents, winning one open seat, and altering the balance of the 24-member council. Crossley, who’d typically been among the top vote-getters, lost her at-large seat to Rena Getz, a neighborhood association leader she had previously defeated, by about 600 votes. Getz declined to comment.
“The voters sent a clear message that they are sick of out-of-control development in the city,” said Randy Block, another of the newly elected councilors and founder of RightSize Newton. “We don’t need or want huge buildings and thousands of new apartments.”
The reverberations were immediate. The old council still had to vote on the zoning plan before leaving office at year’s end, while opponents seized on the election results as a signal of voter sentiment. They threatened a referendum if the council did not dramatically scale it back.
Ultimately, a compromise plan lopped thousands of potential units off the original design.
“They were holding us hostage,” said Councilor Alison Leary. “They had stirred up a lot of fear. And when they started talking about a referendum, we didn’t want to see all of our work totally disappear.”
As for Crossley, her last day on the council was at the end of December, and she’s not sure what’s next. Perhaps, she thinks, it’s time to slow down after the intense sprint of the zoning effort.
“I’m already dead, so I can’t say I’m not going to die on this mountain,” Crossley said. “I did die on this mountain.”