Massachusetts Strikes a Blow Against Exclusionary Zoning

Proposed state bill boosts housing production, helps end exclusionary zoning.

Massachusetts State House: housing choice legislation, tenant protection laws
Massachusetts State House. Photo by Beyond My Ken, CC BY-SA

Directly rebuking Donald Trump’s racist housing agenda, Massachusetts is expected to soon pass a bill that will include a housing choice provision that can help cities and suburbs build housing and end exclusionary zoning. Housing advocates have fought hard for the measure, which enables city councils to pass rezoning changes by a simple majority vote rather than a two-thirds supermajority vote. Supermajority requirements, which Denver and other cities have, reflect racist housing policies that block affordable housing. All cities and states must end them.

In July, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed the bill titled An Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth, which includes housing choice provisions. Its differences from the House bill involve unrelated provisions in a larger economic and housing development package. Housing advocates believe passage is certain, given the unanimous Senate vote and the lack of House opposition to the housing choice section of the larger bill.  The House and Senate versions of the bill will be reconciled through a conference committee before being sent to the governor for his signature. Due to the August recess this may not happen until September.

The imminent passage of housing choice measures in Massachusetts offers three key national lessons.

 No. 1—Voters are Pro-Housing

Donald Trump is wrong: Even suburban voters across the nation increasingly support more economically and racially diverse housing. In March, voters in the affluent, primarily white suburb of Newton, Massachusetts, strongly backed a 140-unit affordable housing development, the largest in the city’s history. Last November saw pro-housing slates win in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Boulder, Colorado, with support for increasing housing affordability the central issue in both elections.

That even longtime anti-development Boulder elected a strong pro-housing slate is telling, as was Cambridge’s pro-housing council victories in an election where support for a citywide affordable housing overlay was the core issue (the measure had passed the prior council but lacked supermajority support).

In a preface to the new paperback edition of Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America I describe the strong pro-housing momentum in urban America. I cite Massachusetts’ supermajority requirement as among the racist barriers that have no place in progressive cities and states. Super-majority requirements make it harder to end apartment bans in single-family zoned neighborhoods, and to provide the increased housing density that affordable projects often require.

[RELATED ARTICLE: What Is NIMBYism and How Do Affordable Housing Developers Respond to It?]

Anti-housing cities like Cupertino, California (home of Apple), and Beverly Hills remain. And some “progressive” politicians in blue cities also maintain alliances with anti-housing homeowners to preserve racist exclusionary zoning laws. But election results and the passage of housing choice bills show that public attitudes toward housing have changed. Far more cities and states are moving in a pro-housing direction.

No. 2—Activists Must End State Barriers

The second national lesson from the housing choice campaign in Massachusetts is that activists must prioritize dismantling state barriers to increase racial inclusion and affordability. State laws that restrict housing construction, ban local rent control and eviction protections, and prevent cities from enacting inclusionary housing must be challenged.

That’s why Massachusetts groups like the Citizens’ Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA), the Massachusetts Housing PartnershipAbundant Housing MA, and local groups like A Better Cambridge fought so hard to pass legislation that would promote housing choice. And that’s why mayors from diverse cities, like Salem’s Kim Driscoll and Somerville’s Joseph Curtatone, strongly backed the bill.

CHAPA’s Rachel Heller told me that she sees housing choice as “changing the power dynamic that most often stops development, drives up home prices, and perpetuates segregation. As the president takes away tools to help communities undo the barriers that keep people out, housing choice will provide [Massachusetts] communities with a tool to intentionally put policies in place that foster inclusivity and create opportunities for people to live where they choose.”

Jesse Kanson-Benanav of Abundant Housing MA, a group focused on state action, echoed Heller’s sentiment. “For too long many [Massachusetts] cities and towns have used the supermajority rule as a tool of racist exclusion to protect exclusionary local zoning and perpetuate modern redlining. Massachusetts purports to be a welcoming and inclusive state and passing housing choice will help us move closer to that vision. Abundant Housing MA will use this opportunity to build a statewide coalition of grassroots, pro-housing advocates to fight for equitable zoning in every community, and for strong tenant protections like tenant right to counsel across the state.”

The path to passing housing choice legislation was arduous. But the campaign had to be waged.

State housing activism is growing and showing increased success. Consider:

*In 2019 Oregon passed a statewide just cause eviction/rent stabilization law. Oregon activists replaced a state law that prevented cities from enacting such measures and imposed these tenant protections statewide. Portland activists did the same in 2016 when a law they advocated for passed, allowing inclusionary housing in the city.

*In 2019 California’s legislature passed the strongest statewide tenant law protections in history. It only happened because activists were undeterred by years of state level failure and kept working for change.

*California’s statewide ballot measure in November (Prop 21) would overturn the notorious Costa-Hawkins anti-tenant law of 1995. Costa-Hawkins singlehandedly made rental housing more expensive by exempting single-family homes from rent control and preventing cities from limiting rent hikes on vacant apartments. The law passed amidst a far more affordable 1995 housing market; voters now have a chance to replace it with a law fitting for today.

*New York City tenant activists won strong new tenant protections in 2019 after years of being stymied by state control of the local rent-control law. This followed the November 2018 election of pro-tenant legislators, and the refusal of local activists to give up on winning change at the state level.

*Sara Bronin just stepped down as chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the City of Hartford in order to focus on statewide land use reform through a new group she helped organize, Desegregate Connecticut. The group is a coalition of over 30 organizations working to end racially based land use discrimination at the state level.

State laws in Colorado, Illinois, Texas, Washington, and other states block cities from enacting essential affordability measures. The passage of housing choice legislation should encourage activists to keep battling at the state level to win real change.

No. 3—Governor Support is Key to Passing Housing Choice

The third message of Massachusetts’s imminent housing choice success is the importance of pro-housing governors supporting specific bills and then pushing for passage. That’s what Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker did for housing choice.

It’s what California Gov. Gavin Newsom did not do on Scott Wiener’s SB 50 or on any other housing production bill. Newsom ran in 2018 pledging to add 3.5 million new units. He openly backs the type of state preemption of local zoning restrictions that Wiener’s bill offered. Yet the governor has not endorsed any specific zoning reform measure, and many believe this lack of public support prevented SB 50 from passing.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also fails to walk the talk on housing. You’d never think that he was a great former HUD secretary after his failure to prioritize new housing production as governor.

Activists must demand that governors back specific bills. When the state’s top politician fails to do so it makes it a lot easier for legislators to take a pass.

Yes, it’s a lot harder to win state fights. But as the late John Lewis showed, winning big change rarely comes easily.

The anticipated victory for housing choice legislation in Massachusetts was never assured and was in doubt only weeks ago. Fortunately, housing advocates never stopped mobilizing for victory.

Randy Shaw is director of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco. His most recent book, "Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America," is now out in paperback from UC Press.


  1. In a time when people are screaming for affordable housing this is needed on a more human condition level. I am all for this. GENTRIFICATION HAS PRICED US OUT OF SHELTER TOO LONG.

  2. I’ll be interested to see whether the switch from a super majority to a simple majority requirement will lead to increased housing production and more affordable options and at what magnitude. I’m wondering how many past failed zoning amendments would have succeeded had this change been in place, i.e. how many past failed zoning amendments obtained simple majority but not super majority approval.

    I’m questioning whether this approach will be as effective as simply outlawing single-family zoning in most urban and suburban areas, like in Oregon. It seem like a good step in the right direction, but is it sufficient? My sense is that, no, it isn’t.


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