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Renée Loth

Zoning reform offers a path to economic equality and social integration

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ZONING REFORM: SNORE. It’s not an issue that gets people “chanting and singing on the Boston Common,” as one of its supporters put it. But a comprehensive bill making its way through the State House would do more to ease the affordable housing crisis — and repair the state’s longstanding economic and racial disparities — than you might imagine. So read on!

The last time the state’s zoning rules were overhauled, Gerald Ford was president. In the decades since, restrictive zoning practices in many of the state’s leafier suburbs have hardened into patterns that exclude family housing, mixed-income developments, even modest accessory dwellings such as granny flats. Local officials yammer on about saving a town’s “character,” but what these restrictive codes really preserve are high prices and homogenous populations.


Few people dispute the need for more housing in Massachusetts; planning agencies estimate 435,000 new units will be needed by 2040 to keep pace with a growing economy. Harriette Chandler, the acting Senate president, used her first formal session this month to issue an urgent call for more reasonably priced housing. “As long as one family remains unable to afford adequate housing,” she said, “we all suffer, together.” Chandler was chief sponsor of the zoning-reform bill that passed the Senate in 2016, but it must be refiled and debated in the current legislative session.

In December alone, Governor Baker proposed a new incentive program to encourage communities to loosen zoning restrictions, and a mayors’ coalition of 14 cities announced a new regional housing partnership. So there’s a welcome momentum toward sharply increasing the housing supply.

But there is already resistance in the many communities that wield zoning rules to block new housing opportunities — or to restrict them by age or family size. According to the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, 200 of the state’s 351 cities and towns haven’t built any new multifamily housing in the past 10 years. It’s just not fair that a few communities bear the responsibility for easing the housing crunch.


The zoning reform bill sets new statewide standards allowing for multifamily housing, accessory dwelling units, cluster zoning to preserve open space, and other “smart growth” initiatives. It eases the current statewide requirement of a super-majority vote to change local zoning or to grant special permits. It helps smaller communities plan better through grants and training. And, importantly, it explicitly outlaws “exclusionary land use practices” that discriminate against racial or economic minorities, families, and other protected classes. “It’s not only about affordability,” says André Leroux, director of the Smart Growth Alliance. “It’s also about inclusion, and being able to live with diversity.” He describes the state’s segregated community patterns as “a monoculture.”

When we think about segregation by race and economic status, zoning might not be the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately, it was the explicit intent of government land-use policies beginning with the New Deal. In his book “The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein describes a shameful history of rules set by the Federal Housing Administration that explicitly blocked African-Americans — including veterans under the GI bill — from access to federally guaranteed mortgages or homes in government-subsidized suburban developments.

Today, Massachusetts is better than many states in curtailing snob zoning, but the damage done to minority residents shut out of housing opportunities takes decades to repair. The recent Globe series spotlighting racial inequities found that the net worth of black families is just $8, compared with $247,500 for whites. That wealth gap is largely attributed to a lack of housing equity among minorities.


Redlining — the discriminatory practice of banks denying mortgages to minority applicants — is illegal in Massachusetts. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that zoning isn’t just a more subtle version. Done right, comprehensive zoning reform will not just increase the supply of housing, but will also facilitate the kind of rich social integration that has eluded this state for years. It deserves its own banner — Zoning Matters! — waved on Beacon Hill.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.