A noteworthy new report by zoning expert Amy Dain and The Boston Foundation has surfaced compelling evidence of the overtly and covertly racist history to many suburban multifamily housing bans.

It also raises questions about how much progress the state can make if Beacon Hill continues its extreme deference to local control over certain housing issues.

Dain’s 50-plus-page report summarizes her year spent digging through municipal and state archives, searching for the motivations behind the restrictive zoning controls we all live with today.

The results may surprise you: aside from notable outliers like Weston that have consciously cultivated land-use controls to maintain its elite status, the bulk of the tools suburbs deploy to ban new apartments and condominiums date back to the 1970s, a period of reactionary local politics Dain dubbed “The Big Downzone.”

Municipal politicians and middle-class voters – some recently arrived from inner cities – sought to reverse fairly long-standing policies that treated apartments as net contributors to the local tax base and encouraged their construction.

By this point, outright expressions of racism (a feature of anti-development zoning in prior decades) had largely become taboo, Dain found, but that didn’t stop numerous politicians, advocates, journalists and commentators at the time from seeing the none-too-subtle implications of statements like this 1976 declaration from Belmont officials, made at a time when a lower income was a defining feature of the Black experience in Greater Boston: “This town will remain a relatively expensive place to live and so will attract only those families so economically situated.”

“I think what really struck me about the school busing era was that the racism that comes in the form of people shouting obscenities and demonstrating in the streets is easy to see. But the racism that’s embedded in zoning codes doesn’t shout obscenities. It’s difficult to understand,” Dain said in an interview.

As local voters, municipal officials and state legislators grapple with the MBTA Communities law’s mandate to add modest-sized multifamily development in the region’s suburbs, they would do well to remember that the zoning we all live with today was largely written in this era, and with these motivations.

The second surprise in Dain’s report was the discovery of a long and fairly widespread tradition of suburban activism to fight back against apartment bans and other types of housing discrimination. Even tony Weston had its own Civil Rights-era battles over zoning that, at the time, residents acknowledged was excluding newcomers based on race and class. And the last 30 years have seen residents who want to welcome more neighbors repeatedly try to reverse this exclusionary zoning.

But without much support from lawmakers or the governor, our predilection to devolve land-use control to a jumble of small territories their efforts made only slow and incremental progress while the roots of today’s housing crisis grew and grew.

Here lies the second lesson of Dain’s report: If Beacon Hill doesn’t stand up for the interests of minorities or the commonwealth as a whole – particularly acute given the fatal threat housing costs pose to the state economy – categorical deference to local control will almost always give the upper hand to those advocating exclusion.

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Research Finds Apartment Bans’ Racist Roots

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min