By any measure, the editorial in the Sunday Boston Globe (headlined: “Newton wakes up to the dark side of America’s housing laws“) was extraordinary.
In no uncertain terms, the Globe’s Editorial Board painted an unflattering portrait of Newton’s past; indicting our city as a prime example of “an archetypal rich suburb,” that has “deliberately” used zoning and other rules to keep out the poor and people of color by “following the time-tested suburban playbook, honed over a thousand fights against developers.”
The grass-roots uprising against new housing is not only the oldest story in America’s suburbs, it’s part of what has made them the pricey enclaves they are, ensuring that property values stay high while deepening income segregation and, in Massachusetts, leaving a handful of cities like Boston to shoulder the burden of housing the state’s growing population.
Then — in equally strong terms — the editors suggested that Newton may be on the cusp of an “awakening. ”
With more optimism than I can muster on some days, the editorial suggest Newton could become a national “trailblazer at tackling inequality this year,” depending on how voters here respond to the March 3 Northland referendum, followed later this year by zoning reform.
That’s a lot of pressure. And it’s exciting too,
Appropriately, the editorial notes, if Newton does “reverse course,” credit should go to the movement started in 2013 with the activists who became Engine 6. It was that group’s emergence, along with a coalition of others who began changing the debate with the subsequent battles over Austin Street, Washington Place and accessory apartments, among others. (Credit, I would add, go to several of our City Councilors who also risked leading on these issues).
Antidevelopment neighborhood groups, which have long dominated local activism with a familiar litany of worries about traffic and schools, suddenly no longer have the only megaphone in Newton. Researchers at Boston University have studied the way the local construction-approval process in Massachusetts often empowers an older, whiter, and wealthier minority of residents to thwart new housing projects. Their 2018 study found that Greater Boston, only 15 percent of comments at public meetings between 2015 and 2017 were supportive of multifamily housing. In Newton, however, the figure was 43 percent, according to statistics provided to the Globe.
But the silver lining was that the Engine 6 controversy shook the city’s faith in suburban orthodoxy. The ugliness of the fight came as a painful epiphany, exposing how the quality-of-life, traffic, and environmental concerns so often cited in American suburbs to rationalize housing obstruction can serve as smokescreens for darker motives — like keeping certain kinds of people out.
And the editorial concludes…
The ongoing harm of segregation in America is too grave to ignore. More communities — and, ultimately, the statehouses that dictate the limits of local land control — are going to need to come to terms with the way long-cherished land-use traditions are exacerbating some of America’s worst racial and economic disparities. One community won’t change that on its own — but this year Newton has the chance to show the way.
There’s a lot to unpack here – and there’s a lot in the followup editorial (scheduled to be in Monday’s print edition) endorsing Northland titled “With a ‘yes’ vote on March 3, Newton can pave the way to fairer future” too.
Please take the time to read both editorials before commenting or find a different thread to make general comments about Northland. i reserve the right to moderate comments that seek to take this thread off topic.