Under almost any other circumstances, a No vote on the charter would be the progressive option. Any scheme that assures a majority — even a slim majority — all the seats on a legislative body is prima facie anti-progressive.
But, these aren’t ordinary circumstances. Because of Newton’s exclusionary zoning and its small African-American and Latino/Hispanic populations, which are arguably a product of exclusionary zoning, progressives should darken the Yes bubble.
Exclusionary zoning is any zoning scheme that, as the name implies, operates to excludes protected groups. Regardless of initial intent, Newton’s zoning is a) driving its real estate prices through the roof and b) keeping our minority population small. What our zoning does, in practice, is to limit multi-family housing. Our housing stock does not grow and what remains becomes more and more expensive. A teardown opportunity near me (Newton Centre) had an asking price of $830,000. (It sold, but not clear for what.) That land price for one house means a single-family home of at least a million dollars. A two-family on the lot would spread the land price. Each additional unit on the lot reduces the land price part of the overall price. The single-family zoning on the lot prevents an owner from adding to the housing stock with units that would be, by definition, more affordable. Newton’s great schools* and proximity to Boston drive the land prices higher and higher.
Rigid single-family zoning (and, near village centers, limits on multi-family) works to limit the opportunity for newcomers, especially those outside the highest income groups. And, that shapes our demography in a decidedly non-progressive fashion.
The demographic information is damning. The percentage of African-Americans in Newton is 3.50%, exactly half of the percentage in Massachusetts (7.00%), which is itself just over half the percentage in the US (12.60%). Roughly the same story with Hispanics/Latinos: Newton – 4.90%, Massachusetts – 10.20%, US – 16.90%. (The Asian population is overrepresented in Newton: 13.00%/5.70%/5.00%.).
The “special character” of Newton is largely a product of exclusionary zoning. The No folks want to protect ward representation to preserve neighborhood character, to give the neighborhood a stronger voice on what can be done with someone else’s property. A No vote on the charter is a vote to continue excluding. It’s just that simple.
The majoritarian design of the charter and the majoritarian impulse of the Yes voter would be troubling if the minorities they were disenfranchising were protected classes. Sadly, there are not enough people of color that any scheme would make a difference to concentrate or dilute their strength in any meaningful way. On the other hand, ward representation gives a bunch of white people more leverage to limit others, including people of color, from joining our community. I find the Yes folks disengenuous at best about ward representation. But, Yes folks are on much firmer moral ground.
Do not misunderstand me. I am not questioning the intent of the No voters. Take them at their word. They are interested in maintaining less dense neighborhoods, not maintaining whiter neighborhoods. But, the effect is the same. Listen to someone like Dick Blazar talk about the right neighbors should have to dictate what a property owner can do on her own property. It’s breathtakingly anti-free market. It also has a pernicious effect on the demographics of our city.
Let us hope the city gets to the point where the proposed charter, in its majoritarian splendor, operates to reduce the political representation of significant pockets of people of color. We will have achieved the progressive aim of greater diversity. We can then re-open the ward representation discussion.
Let us hope the city gets to the point where there are so many people or color that the proposed charter, in its majoritarian splendor, might operate to reduce the political representation of those people of color. We will have achieved the progressive aim of greater diversity. We can then re-open the ward representation discussion.
Also, a No vote is definitively hostile to fixing the problems of climate change.
* A particularly pernicious affect of zoning and property tax-funding for public schools is to create an incentive for residents to resist newcomers. Adding affordable housing stock lowers the property tax revenue per unit. If the units also add children, it lowers the property tax revenue per child. Exclusionary zoning leads to more money per pupil.