What does zoning have to do with housing justice? A lot, as it turns out. Historically, restrictive zoning rules along with a wide array of both public and private tactics have kept people of color out of well-to-do neighborhoods across the country. But that's changing, and today planners and others are championing zoning reform that creates more and better housing opportunities for all.
Boston is chief among the places doing that, and if the activists, elected officials, and public administrators who recently enacted a fair housing zoning amendment there are successful, the local zoning code will advance housing justice ideals in new and innovative ways.
First, it's worth talking about what housing justice means. The New Deal for Housing Justice: A Housing Playbook for the New Administration compiled by Spirit for Change Consulting founder Lynn Ross and many other housing experts and activists, provides useful framing. It outlines five main principles for advancing housing justice, including treating housing as a human right and a public good. It also recommends that decision-makers elevate the voices of those who have been most impacted by federal policy, as well as "embed and pursue approaches that are equity focused, anti-racist, and anti-discriminatory."
The Playbook strikes an optimistic tone, laying out specific pathways and steps for the Biden administration to pursue the goal of housing justice — and some of its ideas have already been acknowledged. Over the last 50 years and more, however, federal housing policy has been inconsistent or silent in upholding fair housing principles. As the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has documented, the high aims of the 1968 Fair Housing Act have been undercut by political contention over the years, contributing to segregated living patterns in many communities.
Beyond that, federal fair housing policy has also failed to recognize differences in needs among communities. It is not color-blind, but it is also not sufficiently race-aware. Scholar Edward Goetz has pointed out multiple times that the push for integration has sometimes hurt or threatened the integrity of neighborhoods of color. For instance, fair housing advocates have worked to block the construction of subsidized housing in low-income neighborhoods where many minorities live, or to disperse residents to high-income "areas of opportunity." Besides limiting housing choices for people who wish to stay, these actions can also sever important social connections and weaken minority groups' political power.
How the new zoning amendment works
Enter Boston's new zoning amendment, which works to "affirmatively further fair housing." (For more on the Obama-era AFFH rule and how it has fared, read on.) While couched in the language of fair housing law, it also addresses community concerns around displacement. The amendment lays out a clear set of tools for real estate developers to assess patterns of displacement risk as well as "historic exclusion" in the areas where they plan to build. Based on these assessments, they must choose appropriate intervention options. This may include building more affordable housing, deepening the level of affordability, creating more family-size units, or instituting a preference policy for housing voucher-holders. Based on local factors, developers may also choose to design their own interventions, pending approval from the Boston Planning and Development Agency as well as a new Boston Interagency Fair Housing Development Committee.
The design of the zoning amendment recognizes that communities have different histories and face disparate issues. New projects in majority-Black Roxbury, similarly majority-minority Dorchester, or largely Asian Chinatown will be able to accommodate different needs compared to those in wealthy, Back Bay, where most residents are white. Besides fair housing legislation, the zoning amendment draws on the language of zoning — in particular, impact analysis — to legitimize these differences and their associated solutions. This lends the policy two things: stability, since the zoning code cannot be easily changed, and power, thanks to the relatively high level of real estate development in Boston.
Rooted in good policy
The amendment is by no means a perfect solution to the problems of exclusionary practices (both public and private), or the disproportionate displacement of low-income residents of color. In addition, because of its flexible and development-dependent nature, it is difficult to set standards for or assess its future success. It is also not yet clear — at least in publicly released documents — how policymakers will solicit and incorporate public input throughout the highly technical zoning process. As with any other new policy, its ultimate impact remains to be seen.
However, in its design and framing, the AFFH zoning amendment takes several steps in a better direction. Although it's rooted in policies like the Fair Housing Act and the Obama-era AFFH Rule, it advances fair housing goals in important ways. It exemplifies the equity focus recommended by the New Deal for Housing Justice report; rather than indiscriminately advocating for "integration" across all neighborhoods, it aims to create more affordable housing opportunities in exclusive areas while helping to preserve space for current residents in neighborhoods facing displacement.
This makes the amendment, as well as other policies like it, all the more important in the current moment. Last year, under the Trump administration, the AFFH Rule, which had brought a renewed focus to fair housing issues, was officially terminated. The Biden administration has indicated that it will bring the AFFH rule back. The administration could also work to improve its framing of segregation, as well as add more language on preventing displacement. For instance, HUD could rethink how racially/ethnically-concentrated areas of poverty (R/ECAPs) were presented primarily as problems to be eliminated in the original AFFH rule. In line with Biden's stance against exclusionary zoning, it might also add measures that single out areas of high historical exclusion — as Boston's AFFH zoning amendment does.
The New Deal for Housing Justice playbook also makes some recommendations (specifically, Recommendations 2.1.5 and 9.1.1) on how HUD might learn from policies and practices at the state and local level. As researcher Mara Sidney has pointed out, fair housing policy has historically been most effective when federal and local actors work together. This approach is not a panacea — structural discrimination in the private market must also be addressed — but it is an important step towards a fairer, more just housing paradigm.
Many thanks and congratulations to the AFFH zoning amendment authors who talked through the policy's significance with me. Thanks also to my thesis committee for their unstinting help and feedback.
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Top Image: Coverntry Street, Lower Roxbury Historic District in Boston, Massachusetts. Wikimedia Commons photo by Magicpiano (CC BY-SA 3.0).
About the author
Bailey Hu is a Fellow at the City of Boston's Department of Neighborhood Development and is master of arts candidate at Tufts University's Urban and Environmental Policy & Planning program.