Fair Housing and Zoning: Toward a New Boston?

How Boston became the first city to add fair housing to its zoning regulations.

Boston housing. Photo by flickr user Willem van Bergen, CC BY-SA 2.0


fair housing: photo shows aerial view of a Boston residential area

Photo of Boston by flickr user Willem van Bergen, CC BY-SA 2.0

“We are taking a historic step toward zoning playing a role in healing. We have come a long way and the real test is not the signing or even passage of this amendment but its implementation. Ultimately, I hope when we look back on this moment we will proudly say the City of Boston leaned in towards equity and finally said everyone is welcome to call Boston their home.” — Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, Dec. 9, 2020

The City of Boston is well known for its history of racism and segregation. In part, it is the separation of the worlds of fair housing and zoning that has served to entrench these evils into the fabric of the city’s life. Boston’s zoning charter, which regulates land use and public and private development, was adopted in 1956 and amended over the years. In 1968, the Fair Housing Act became the law of the land. Fair housing is aimed at ensuring the equal rights to housing of protected classes of citizens, particularly those who have been victimized because of their race, color, sex, physical ability, family structure, or religion. Zoning and fair housing represented two separate realities or civic narratives, however, and thus fair housing was ignored under the city’s zoning regulations.

The division between these two narratives was exploded on Dec. 9, 2020, when then–Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced that the city would include affirmatively furthering fair housing requirements in its zoning code following a vote by city council. The action would make Boston the first major city to conjoin fair housing and zoning regulations, according to Walsh.

“To reverse the exclusionary housing practices of the past that have kept families of color from accessing safe and secure housing and building generational wealth, we must support aggressive new housing policies that promote equity and fairness . . . . By adopting affirmative fair housing requirements into our zoning code and asking our developers to do more to fight displacement and create housing for all, Boston will serve as the national leader on fair housing practices,” Walsh stated.

Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who represents East Boston—a working-class and immigrant neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city—first introduced and proposed the amendment in April 2019. Working with a coalition of housing and civil rights activists and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Community Advisory Committee (CAC), Edwards led the charge to conjoin fair housing and zoning.

The city’s zoning commission unanimously approved the change on Jan. 13. Once the changes go into effect in March, proposals for development in Boston will be required to include language and data demonstrating that projects will not harm area residents who have historically been discriminated against so that “steps can be taken to reduce those impacts, provide new housing opportunities, and address past histories of exclusion,” a city release stated.

Proposals presented to the Boston Development and Planning Agency (BPDA) for residential or mixed-use development undergoing Large Project Review pursuant to Article 80 of the Zoning Code must now include three things: first, a narrative description of how the project will further the goals of overcoming segregation and fostering inclusive communities. Second, an assessment of historical exclusion and displacement risk, which consists of a review of potential racial and economic changes in the area where the project is proposed, and a review of the proposal’s potential effect on rents in the area to ensure that longtime residents will not lose their housing. The BPDA will be required to use an Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Assessment Tool to determine what might be the potential effects on residents and businesses before development plans are approved.

And third, developers must present a description of measures to be taken to achieve their AFFH goals, chosen from intervention menus provided in the zoning code amendment. Their intervention choices should be commensurate with the size and scope of the project, and must include at least one process intervention and one marketing intervention. There are additional intervention lists for projects in areas of high displacement risk or high historical exclusion, and for planned development areas, and a project must include an intervention from each of those lists if it qualifies.

Interventions include deepening the affordability of units beyond what would otherwise be required, providing a higher number of accessible units than otherwise required, matching or exceeding the percentage of family-sized units in the surrounding neighborhood, increasing density to accommodate a greater number of affordable units to protected classes, and partnering with nonprofit developers to assist with affordable housing production.

To monitor compliance of the new amendment, a Boston Interagency Fair Housing Development Committee (BIFHDC) will be appointed by the city. Members will include representatives from the Boston Housing Authority, Office of Fair Housing and Equity, Department of Neighborhood Development, the Mayor’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities, and BPDA. The development and planning agency has stated it is committed to hiring a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion to assist with the implementation of the amendment, and it will retain a fair housing expert to conduct an audit to assess how fair housing is being implemented in zoning and development decisions. Currently, the CAC is also negotiating with BPDA to expand community membership on the new monitoring committee.

How Boston Got Here

The approval of the amendment was part of a larger effort between 2017 and 2020 to get the city to adopt a comprehensive assessment of fair housing in Boston.

photos shows view from back of room at well-attended community meeting on in Chinatown, Boston.

A meeting in Chinatown, one of 14 held in partnership with community and neighborhood groups, to discuss issues such as gentrification and rapidly rising rents. Photo courtesy of the Boston Tenant Coalition

CAC, in partnership with community and neighborhood groups, and city representatives, organized 14 public meetings in 2017 where more than 500 residents attended. Residents discussed concerns about the issues they’d been facing in their respective communities—specifically gentrification and rapidly rising rents. The meetings deliberately targeted members of different protected classes and were held in Boston neighborhoods that have experienced the most change over the years. The Boston Tenant Coalition (BTC) worked with local civic leaders in these neighborhoods to help them plan, organize, and lead the meetings. The first meeting was the largest (about 75 people) and we believe part of the reason for the turnout was due to BTC providing logistical support, childcare, food for residents, and assistance in sharing policy-related information to attendees germane to fair housing. (Editor’s Note: Two of this article’s authors, Kathy Brown and Lincoln Larmond, are affiliated with the BTC.) The Boston Public Health Commission provided logistical support, and the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston worked with BTC to conduct outreach and planning for the public meetings. (Editor’s Note: Robert Terrell was executive director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston.)

BTC and the Boston Housing Authority each designed a survey in the summer of 2017 to assess resident and community concerns about fair housing and discrimination. BHA’s survey was mailed to residents; BTC’s survey was collected after each public meeting. In addition to sharing information from the city relative to housing and public health, a major part of the public meetings was the breakout groups, where residents, a facilitator, and a notetaker were randomly assigned to groups and discussed questions related to the survey. At the completion of the sessions, a democratically elected speaker from each group shared with all attendees the major themes of their respective discussions.

Planners also hosted a raffle for all who submitted a completed survey. The information BTC gathered from the breakout groups and the surveys it collected ultimately helped develop Boston’s updated zoning amendment.

In total, approximately 2,500 residents responded to both surveys. There was testimony from residents who had been displaced or were in fear of such, and from residents who had experienced housing discrimination. Residents drew strong connections between the latter and the increase of homelessness in the city, which is primarily affecting families and children in communities of color. Residents were worried about being evicted from their homes due to what they perceived as wanton and uncontrollable real estate development. In many areas of town, developers are buying properties in a frenzy and either asking longtime residents to leave or they are raising rents to unaffordable levels to achieve the same goals.

One recent example of this involves a stable low-income and working-class community in the predominantly Black neighborhood of Mattapan, known as the Fairlawn Apartments. One quarter of all family households in this area comprise four persons or more and the average annual income for renters is approximately $24,000. In one-tenth of a mile radius of the Fairlawn Apartments, average rents were $1,200, according to the according American Community Survey 2014 – 2018 5 Year Estimates. This number rose to $1,800 when a national real estate developer bought Fairlawn Apartments in July 2018 for $65 million and changed its name to SOMO Apartments. The developer is marketing the newly acquired units to higher-income people in surrounding suburbs who might want to move to Boston and closer to a new transit and commuter rail stop.

Throughout this entire process, Councilor Edwards and CAC had worked as full partners, serving as an example of city/community partnership. Along with proposing the amendment, Edwards had been conducting city council working sessions since 2019, pushing from the council end, and CAC was pushing on other parts of city bureaucracy. Edwards and CAC conducted many pre-conference meetings before the council working sessions to make sure all parties were on the same page.

In 2020, COVID amplified the need for the fair housing amendment. And the pandemic may have played a role in BPDA’s decision to support the zoning change as the agency was not on board in the beginning. But ultimately, we believe the leadership and advocacy of Edwards, buy-in from other city councilors, and the influence of the CAC created a momentum that would have made it difficult for the city not to support the amendment. 

On June 6, 2020, CAC organized a citywide virtual town hall with an audience of approximately 100 participants. The purpose of the virtual town hall was to explain to residents how their feedback was reflected in assessment of fair housing report. CAC shared a working draft that it believed most reflected public input and best fulfilled both the committee and the city’s commitment to comprehensive fair housing. It was at this meeting where Councilor Edwards discussed the importance of including fair housing regulations in the city’s zoning codes.

The draft became the basis for Boston’s final assessment of fair housing report and incorporated the affirmatively furthering fair housing requirements. While this report is a city document, CAC helped mold it in a major way by offering and insisting on numerous language changes and amendments particularly regarding the goals, which were organized into 14 categories, and it provided feedback relative to the data sections in the affirmatively furthering fair housing requirement. Some of those goals include increasing housing availability and accessibility for older adults and people with disabilities, reducing and preventing homelessness, expanding housing choice for voucher holders, ensuring the equitable distribution of city resources based on need, and more.

CAC’s biggest role was guiding, advocating, and consistently pushing the city to reflect and incorporate the intersectionalities inherent to fair housing, including responding to inequalities and inequities in health, education, jobs, transportation, public safety in addition to access to quality and deeply affordable housing.

This was a struggle at times due to city’s initial suggestion that fair housing could be achieved primarily through an “affordable housing lens,” or by building significant amounts of housing that would have lower rents. CAC argued that fair housing goes beyond these notions and that using zoning as a progressive tool is critical to achieving fair housing in Boston. Only after two years of meetings and debates with the city, and reminding councilors that Boston could turn the corner in terms of its racial history, did the completion of a comprehensive zoning amendment move forward.

When the amendment is fully enforced in March, it will mean that zoning must now reflect the intersectionality that is inherently part of fair housing. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 can now be more effectively leveraged to guarantee the housing rights of residents and as a key tool in building anti-gentrification strategies in one of the nation’s most gentrified cities.

Fair housing must be comprehensive and multi-layered and sustained over a period of time. Strategies must reflect housing’s connections to public schools, public health, public safety, and the availability of economic opportunities. Rationales for huge physical, private, and institutional development planning on the basis of presumed benefits for residents can now be more effectively challenged through a fair housing lens.

The city and CAC have composed an executive order that will establish monitoring guidelines that will track the success of the new order. The executive order calls for continual CAC involvement in monitoring and implementation of fair housing and the new zoning regulations. The executive order will be presented to the acting Mayor Kim Janey, the first African American and woman to hold this position, and someone who as president of the Boston City Council has been in support of the work of CAC and completion of the zoning change. 

It is this context which makes the victory in Boston momentous. There is much possibility in this context to effectively ensure that longtime residents, and Black, Latinx, and Asian residents, are not an afterthought of development under private, or public-private partnerships. But it will take continual and sustained community organizing as reflected in the work of the Boston Tenant Coalition, the CAC, and other grassroots organizations, as well as progressive elected officials, to ensure that the potential of this new change in Boston’s zoning codes is actualized to its fullest. As Boston City Councilor Edwards observes, “the real test is not the signing or even passage of this amendment, but its implementation.” If the amendment is fully implemented, then finally the heretofore separate narratives of zoning and fair housing will become one, and this would bode well for Boston’s future and all its residents.

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