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Zoning Reform—The First Step on the Long Road to Housing Equity in Newton

Zoning. This tedious, wonky subject has become the focus of tremendous contentious debate in our city. Newton has long struggled with how to change our outdated zoning policies to address a range of challenges–the housing crisis, climate change, and economic inequality. In 2021, the City Council started an in-depth process to revise zoning focused on village centers and, after gaining substantial input from the community, is close to passing new zoning changes.

The new proposed zoning has raised strong feelings on all sides. There has been fierce resistance from residents who are concerned that this proposal will undermine the character of our villages. There has also been equally strong support for the proposal by those who believe these zoning changes are a necessary step towards addressing the current housing and climate crises. Then there are the folks more in the middle who may not love or hate the plan but understand that Newton has to make changes to comply with the MBTA Community Act.

But there is another component of housing that explains why it is imperative to create a wider range of housing options that will welcome more people. Housing, or lack thereof, has been one of the biggest drivers of economic and racial inequality in our country. Newton is no exception, having been shaped by the same forces and policies that created racial segregation throughout our country.

Newtonians are often surprised to learn that in the 1930s Newton adopted redlining, a discriminatory practice used throughout the US to prevent Black residents from obtaining mortgages, denying them the opportunity for home ownership and, consequently, wealth. Although banned with the 1968 Fair Housing Act, redlining left a legacy of racial segregation and a stunning racial wealth gap. Today people of color still face obstacles attempting to secure mortgages and the disparities in homeownership are stark and worsening. In fact, rates of home ownership among Blacks are lower today than when segregation was legal.

People are also surprised to learn that Newton once was home to one of the largest suburban Black communities in Massachusetts dating back to the 1870s. Later, people fleeing the Jim Crow South found opportunity and community in a thriving Black community in West Newton. In the 1960s, however, this neighborhood was destroyed by the extension of the Turnpike. Many Black residents were forced out of their homes by eminent domain and given unfair prices. This flourishing Black community was divided and scattered.

In the 20th century, zoning became a preferred means to keep suburbs segregated. Because of the historically discriminatory practices that denied Black people the opportunity to build wealth through homeownership, zoning for single homes on large lots systematically prevented many Black families from purchasing homes in suburbs, like Newton. Today, Newton continues to implement antiquated zoning policies that have exacerbated racial inequities and resulted in a city that is unattainable for most except for the very wealthy. Given racial disparities in income, this type of class-based disparity has a disproportionate impact on people of color.

Acknowledging that the Newton of today resulted from explicitly racist policies of the past and that continuing to implement these policies perpetuate these trends (even unintentionally) does not mean that today's residents are individually responsible for these outcomes. However, it does mean that we should take action to change these fundamentally unfair policies and practices. In his 2017 seminal work: The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein explains:

If segregation was created by accident or by undefined private prejudices, it is too easy to believe that it can only be reversed by accident or, in some mysterious way, by changes in people’s hearts. But if we—the public and policy makers—acknowledge that the federal, state, and local governments segregated our metropolitan areas, we may open our minds to considering how those same federal, state, and local governments might adopt equally aggressive policies to desegregate.

There is no silver bullet to addressing the housing crisis or rectifying the wrongs of past racial discrimination in housing. Instead, we need multiple approaches and policy changes. Newton has already taken some modest steps towards increasing our housing supply. For example, in 2017, Newton overhauled our Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU, aka, “in-law apartments”) ordinance to make it easier to add housing options to existing single and two-family homes. This ordinance was updated in 2022 to allow detached ADUs by right (i.e., without a special permit).

Changing zoning is one way to more closely align our policies with our expressed values of diversity, inclusion, equity, and belonging. In 2019, Newton took an important step towards increasing affordable housing options in Newton by passing an Inclusionary Zoning ordinance. This requires new residential developments with over six units to include deed-restricted affordable housing units. In larger developments, this translates into a substantial number of units available to residents with a wider range of income levels than what is currently available today.

While complex, imperfect, and far from enough, Newton’s zoning proposal seeks to expand opportunities for a wider range of housing types in our village centers, including the types of housing developments that will include affordable units. Research is clear that more diverse housing options leads to more diverse communities. This is an important step towards making Newton more accessible, including for those who have been historically excluded.

As stated so eloquently in the Newton Interfaith Coalition for Housing Equity (NICHE)’s post Housing is Everything, housing touches on a range of issues and addressing it is both a civic and moral obligation. NICHE explains: “We support housing that sustains Newton’s commitment to racial equity and justice in an effort to remove the stain of Newton’s history of redlining…. We support…efforts to create a reformed zoning ordinance that allows families to live in Newton, that revitalizes our communities, and that welcomes people of diverse income, race, and faith.”

As a group with a strong commitment to racial justice, we agree that the new proposed zoning will move us towards having more affordable, diverse, sustainable, and fair housing, and towards being the more welcoming, inclusive city we proclaim we’d like to be. Newton has room to grow; let’s open the doors so that more people will be able to share the benefits of living in our amazing city.


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