Zoning is major artery of systemic racism

Housing rules shape who can -- and can't -- live in communities

LAST WEEK, US Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson announced the administration would be ending Affirmatively Further Fair Housing (AFFH) regulations, referring to them as “a waste of time for localities to comply with.” This news comes after weeks of President Trump threatening in Tweets and press conferences to remove the regulations because the regulations will“abolish the suburbs.”

Enacted in 2015, AFFH regulations encouraged communities to take proactive steps to undo the impact of invisible, intentional, and systemic discrimination and segregation in housing. Any community receiving HUD funding was required to report what meaningful local planning efforts they had taken to combat historical inequities and ensure their city or town was not excluding members or restricting opportunity. While the critical Fair Housing Act of 1968 prevents the discrimination of protected classes in the home buying and rental processes, outlawing discrimination alone does not remove the invisible barriers that AFFH sought to erase.

The removal of AFFH regulations allows communities to go back to the former status quo. Instead of actively assessing racial and economic disparities, communities will again be able to certify that they “will” address these issues without any enforcement of ever having to do so.  This is an unfathomable step backward for racial equity and for this country. Unfortunately, it comes at a pivotal moment in our country, when many are rightfully examining every system of our country and intentionally changing inherently racist systems in the hopes of making it a place where people have the opportunities we were taught were available to everyone. Among these systems needing reform, there is a major artery of systemic racism we must address: zoning in each of our communities.



Zoning is the tool our communities use to determine what can and cannot be built, translating into who has or does not have the opportunity to live there. In Massachusetts in 1969, we adopted Chapter 40B to open access to communities by providing a mechanism for building affordable housing when communities don’t allow for it themselves, but we still have work to do. Zoning is historically rooted in segregation and shaped by redlining, and the effects of decades of lost wealth-building for black and brown households persist today, leaving many communities out of reach for households of color.

The reality is that communities can be in the driver’s seat, by zoning for multifamily housing that creates opportunities for people across income levels, and some communities are already taking action. Municipalities like Boston and Arlington have taken fair housing into their own hands, proactively going beyond the federal requirements. Similarly, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) created a Regional Fair Housing Plan with goals for increased housing for people with low incomes to avoid displacement, housing that reflects the diversity of its residents, more transit-oriented multi-family housing, and more.

If you are looking for ways to make your community more equitable, take a look at what your community is — or isn’t — doing around Fair Housing. Every step taken is a step towards dismantling the systemic barriers that are making a global health and economic crisis even more difficult for black people, indigenous people, and people of color. Start with these suggestions of intentional steps you, your neighbors, and your local government can take to ensure your community is welcoming and inclusive:

  • Vote yes for more housing. More housing means more opportunity. Is your city or town in the process of approving or planning for new housing? Show your support through an email, a phone call, or Zooming into the next public meeting. Speak in support of housing that provides a range of options, including homes that are affordable to people with low and moderate incomes as well as market rate housing.
  • Support zoning changes. If your community doesn’t allow new housing to be built, particularly multi-family housing, you are excluding new residents and perpetuating segregation. The 2019 Greater Boston Housing Report Card found that a diversity of housing types fosters diversity in population. Voting yes for housing also means supporting zoning changes that allow more multi-family housing and creating more walkable neighborhoods.
  • Join or create a pro-housing coalition with your neighbors. Cities and towns like Amherst, Arlington, Cambridge, Medford, and Newton are building a broader support base for affordable housing production in their communities to encourage more housing opportunities for people with no, low, and moderate incomes. Many other communities like Acton, Foxborough, Lynn, and Revere have active housing groups, too. If your community doesn’t have one, why not start your own?
  • Create a Fair Housing Commission. MAPC’s guide on fair housing civic engagement is a great starting point, or take a look at Cambridge, Newton, and Boston’s examples.
  • Advocate for policies that advance fair housing. Let your legislators know that you support policies like Housing Choice, which makes it easier for communities to pass zoning changes that foster affordable housing creation by taking the decision-making power out of the hands of a small group of people who oppose development.
Meet the Author

Rachel Heller

CEO, Citizens' Housing and Planning Association
Now is a moment for us all to address the harmful policies that, though created decades ago, are still enforced through our zoning today. We can proactively make our communities more inclusive by saying yes to more affordable housing and putting the zoning in place that allows for communities to create it. We must work at every level — local, state, and federal — to create sustainable, affordable housing and make our Commonwealth safer and more equitable for all.

Rachel Heller is the chief executive officer of Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association.