As I testified recently — and subsequently posted, the history of zoning is steeped in racism, both in intent and impact. Choosing to re-authorize exclusionary zoning with knowledge of that history is, arguably, an intentional act to perpetuate the racist intent and impact. Using language similar to language used by those promoting racial segregation with knowledge of that history is, arguably, apologizing for those earlier sentiments.
A response in a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum raises these issues again.* A candidate was asked:
[Candidate], how would you balance maintaining Newton’s suburban character with the area’s need for more affordable housing?
The candidate answered (full response below),
As I’ve been going door-to-door and as I‘ve been listening to people over the last six years, what I hear over and over, that people say they moved to Newton because they left Somerville or Cambridge or Boston. They didn’t want such an urban environment. And, so I think that we need to respect that. […] But, I do think that we want to keep our villages keep Newton a city of villages rather than become something that is something that most people here I think want.
If you are at all aware of the history of white flight in this country, indeed in our region, this is really troubling language. This is basically a recap of the argument for escaping mixed-race cities for all-white suburbs, which remained all-white through exclusionary zoning that created the single-family housing that distinguishes the not-urban environment of places like Newton. Exclusionary zoning, plus government loans that were only available to white families. And, red-lining that denied black families the ability to buy in the suburbs and join in the wealth creation and educational opportunity that these homes represented.
The suburbs are perhaps our most enduring example of structural racism.
I don’t want to suggest that this candidate was motivated by racial animus. On the face of it, the language is racially neutral. Some people simply have an aesthetic preference for their own house on their own yard in a neighborhood of similar houses and yards. In fact, the full answer below demonstrates some admirable (though intentionally limited) concern for affordable housing, which is a compensating social justice issue.
But, the fact that the candidate’s constituents’ aesthetic preference is available to them has history that is not simply aesthetic preference. That history matters. One would hope that a candidate for Newton City Council, aware as they must be of how central housing and zoning are to this year’s races, would be sensitive to the racial dynamics of housing and zoning and the history of white families leaving cities, especially Boston, to create all-white enclaves. And, one would hope that a candidate would avoid positively reinforcing the white-flight sentiment expressed by their constituents, however innocently.
And, one would hope that those constituents would be aware of the cost of their aesthetic preference and, perhaps, not insist on their elected officials protecting those aesthetic preferences.
I don’t wish to make this about any particular candidate. Our collective ignorance of the racial dynamics of housing and zoning is broader than this one candidate and needs to be identified and discussed at every turn. I just happened to catch this one example.
Full question and response.
Moderator: [Candidate], how would you balance maintaining Newton’s suburban character with the area’s need for more affordable housing?
Candidate: As I’ve been going door-to-door and as I‘ve been listening to people over the last six years, what I hear over and over, is that people say they moved to Newton because they left Somerville or Cambridge or Boston. They didn’t want such an urban environment. And, so I think that we need to respect that. Keep Newton the Garden City. Keep trees. Keep open space. But I think that we can do that. And, I’m actually very proud of my record on affordable housing. I led on the accessory apartment ordinance that made it easier for people to build small units in their homes. I’ve supported every non-profit housing development that has been proposed during my tenure. But, I think that we need to be doing more to reach out to our non-profit developer friends. I feel that at this point we are a bit too solicitous of the private developers and they have the money and the wherewithal and the lawyers to be able to move very quickly. I sat down recently with a non-profit developer and got some really helpful feedback and good ideas. She said for example one thing the city could do would be to put together a fund that non-profit developers could tap when a property became available. Because private-sector developers can move so much more quickly. She also suggested we should look at what Cambridge does, which is proactively reach out when properties come up for sale or even before they come up for sale so that they can identify opportunities and jump on them. So, I think that there is more that we can do. But, I do think that we want to keep our villages keep Newton a city of villages rather than become something that is something that most people here I think want.
* The question itself is terrible. It assumes that preserving Newton’s suburban character is a virtue. The League should know better. Besides the terrible racial history, suburban density is a matter of environmental and economic injustice. Why should the question validate the preference for Newton’s suburban character?