Tear down this paper wall, Newton
The Boston Globe
August 23, 2020
The contentious referendum this winter over the fate of a huge housing development in Newton’s Upper Falls neighborhood was supposed to be close. After all, if there’s one thing residents of wealthy, golf-and-garden suburbs like Newton hate, it’s dense housing, right?
Instead the project, an 800-unit development near the Charles River, cruised to a 16-point victory.
Now, as they begin crafting broader changes to the city’s housing rules, Newton’s leaders ought to take the March referendum results as a bellwether of a heartening shift: The longstanding consensus against denser, more affordable housing in America’s suburbs is beginning to crack. For generations, large, single-family housing has been the only kind many suburbs wanted. But the way that once-cherished limits on growth have harmed the environment and deepened racial segregation is coming into ever-sharper focus, aided by local activists and the national soul-searching over systemic racism fostered by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, Newton’s City Council has an opportunity to meet the moment by getting rid of the blanket regulations that, for almost a century, have outlawed lower-cost, multifamily housing in much of the city. It’s those kind of zoning restrictions that have mapped racial and economic disparities onto America’s geography — and it’s by abandoning them that Newton and other suburbs can lay the groundwork for a more inclusive future.
Currently, about three-quarters of Newton’s 23,000 residentially zoned lots are reserved for single-family homes, according to the mayor’s office — which means they’re limited to people who can afford median home prices that have ballooned to about $1 million. With an initiation fee that high to join Club Newton, the city’s racial demographics shouldn’t come as any surprise: the city is about 3 percent Black and 5 percent Latino, according to the Census, well under half the rates in the state as whole.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s office has presented several preliminary drafts of a revised residential zoning code to the City Council, all of which involve some increase in the allowance for multi-family housing. The details, though, remain in flux. The City Council committee working on zoning reform hopes to agree on the residential section this year, before moving on to commercial zoning.
Allowing multifamily housing in inner suburbs like Newton can also have environmental benefits, if it reduces the pressure in more far-flung towns to tear up farms and forests to make way for housing. Sprawl into distant suburbs with little or no mass transit can also increase car dependency and pollution.
One idea the councilors have discussed is to allow multifamily zoning within a quarter- or half-mile radius around MBTA stations and bus stops, in order to concentrate the most growth near transit so that residents would be less likely to drive. If environmental concerns were the only factors driving the zoning overhaul, it might make sense to stop there.
But a piecemeal approach also means that some parts of the city would suffer from the purported burdens of new housing density, such as more traffic, while others could keep single-family-only rules. The more equitable solution for Newton residents, current and future, would be rule that allow some multifamily housing everywhere. The community can still prioritize development with access to mass transit, but that shouldn’t preclude the ability to put up a few duplexes in other areas.
This is the time for bolder thinking, and not just because of the nationwide protests against racial injustice that were inspired by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The state Legislature is also on the verge of passing a bill proposed by Governor Charlie Baker that will make it easier for communities like Newton to relax their housing limits. It allows municipalities to change zoning with a simple majority vote, instead of requiring a two-thirds majority. Once that law is enacted, it will deprive the anti-housing minority on Newton’s city council of its ability to thwart changes.
Other jurisdictions, notably Minneapolis, have been ahead of the curve removing restrictions on multi-family housing. But for Newton — a suburb with so much money and such good schools — to take down barriers to multifamily housing would send an even louder message.
And it would correct a historic mistake. Earlier this year, a Newton historian, Alice E. Ingerson, dug up a tantalizing bit of long-forgotten history from the city’s archives. When Newton was debating its first set of zoning rules in the early 1920s, the mayor at the time vetoed the first ordinances because they banned two-family homes in parts of the city, which he predicted would make it impossible for young families to find a home. Single-family-only zoning, said Mayor Edwin O. Childs in 1923, was “founded on selfishness.”
Within a few years, Childs was out of office and single-family zoning was the rule in Newton. Now, after a century that proved how prescient its long-ago mayor was, the city has a chance to lead the way in undoing the harm that so many communities imposed on American life.