Zoning has Played a Major Role in Racial Segregation

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New state law aimed at spurring housing construction can be vehicle for racial justice

IN RESPONSE TO decades of rising housing costs across the Commonwealth, Massachusetts recently amended the state zoning act to require local governments to reform their zoning laws. The amendments are part of a broader goal of addressing the barriers that prevent the supply of housing from keeping up with growing demand.

In many communities, local zoning laws prohibit the construction of multi-family housing, which includes everything from townhouses and triple-deckers to apartments and mixed-use commercial/residential buildings. In many cases, builders must apply for special approval in a lengthy process where they are likely to be denied permission to build anything besides detached single-family houses. The new multi-family zoning requirement for MBTA communities creates a legal obligation for 175 communities in the greater Boston area to design at least one zoning district where multi-family housing can be built by right, or without special permission.

Because of the new law’s potential complexity, the Department of Housing and Community Develop (DHCD) issued draft guidelines in December 2021. As with any set of regulatory guidelines, this one includes a public engagement process where stakeholders can submit comments providing DHCD with feedback. Typically, such feedback focuses on technical aspects that may make it harder or easy for municipalities to comply with state law, but early reactions suggest that many municipalities may be looking for ways to avoid compliance altogether.

For organizations like Harborlight Community Partners, which are committed to ensuring more affordable and accessible housing is available in all our communities, these early indications that many municipalities intend to resist compliance are troubling. With the support of several stakeholders on the North Shore, we recently submitted public comments urging DHCD to take a collaborative but strong approach to local compliance as a matter of racial justice. By any number of measures, the greater Boston region remains highly segregated by race and stringent zoning regulations, which the new law explicitly addresses and are a major source of the problem.

Housing experts have long suspected that stringent zoning played a role in preventing racial integration in Massachusetts.

Writing jointly in 1975, two civil rights commissions noted that “exclusionary local policies of large-lot zoning, and restrictions on multi-family family dwellings changed rural towns into suburban white enclaves” around the fast growing Route 128 region.

The report’s findings were highly suggestive but the data and methods were rudimentary. In the decades that followed, though, a growing body of research has confirmed their suspicions: draconian density restrictions, particularly in suburban communities, are a strong source of racial segregation. Density restrictions, such as zoning districts that only allow for detached single-family houses on medium or large parcels, essentially make it illegal to build anything but very expensive owner-occupied housing. The same historical legacy that has left Black households with lower income, less wealth, and more limited access to mortgage credit means that this type of zoning acts as an invisible barrier effectively blocking Black (and others of color) families from many communities.

Building on a growing body of evidence, new research from political scientist Jessica Trounstine provides strong evidence that communities that were whiter in 1970, when the movement for more zoning regulations began to take off, were more likely to have stringent zoning regulations decades later. Moreover, she finds that municipalities that enacted these more stringent zoning regulations remained whiter than those with less restrictive zoning. In other words, the stringency of local zoning regulations was a major determinant of whether communities became more diverse or remained highly segregated.

The new state requirement that communities zone for at least one district of reasonable size where it is possible to building multi-family housing by right is a small but important and necessary step in addressing the obstacles that keep Massachusetts segregated. Viewed through this lens, noncompliance is not merely a matter of whether or not a particular town allows the construction of certain types of housing within its borders. It is a matter of fair housing and racial justice.

Compliance will take time and require technical assistance from the state and regional agencies to help some communities overcome legitimate barriers to implementation. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is compliance in all 175 communities. The state cannot allow local government to break the law. We have a moral obligation to see to it that recalcitrant municipalities comply with all deliberate speed.

Meet the Author Joshua McCabe

Endicott College/Niskanen Center