Blog Zoning

Exclusionary By Design: The History of Zoning in Boston Suburbs

December 12, 2023

While popular scholarship has extensively documented the racially exclusionary effects of low density and single family zoning, particularly in its earliest forms, there is less agreement on whether it was adopted for the explicit purpose of segregating by race and class.

Amy Dain’s “Exclusionary By Design: An Investigation of Zoning’s Use as a Tool of Race, Class, and Family Exclusion in Boston’s Suburbs, 1920 to Today” draws extensively on historical planning documents to build a strong case that Boston’s suburban municipalities did indeed adopt strict low-density zoning for the purpose of maintaining racial and class segregation.

Key Takeaways

  • Massachusetts towns used zoning to preserve their class position relative to nearby municipalities, exclude racial minorities, and exclude families with children.
  • Massachusetts’ suburban zoning can be divided into four eras: adoption of zoning in the 1920s and 30s; the postwar era through 1968, when zoning got tighter but apartments were still allowed; the “Big Downzone” from 1968 -1975, which instituted a durable slow- or no-growth policy; and the post-1975 era of allowing limited amounts of multifamily housing, subjected to discretionary review.
  • The Big Downzone happened during the Civil Rights era, as Boston’s Black population grew and Boston residents protested to block school integration. As suburban residents voted to restrict multifamily development, “voters could not have been ignorant about the implications of their votes.”

Dain’s history of Boston area fiscal zoning may surprise contemporary readers. In contrast to post-war California, where apartments were viewed as a drain on municipal finances, apartment developments in Boston and surrounding jurisdictions were widely regarded as a fiscal positive – provided that the apartments were studios or one-bedrooms too small to accommodate families with school-aged children.

Similarly, Boston suburbs’ mid-century zoning before the Big Downzone was less focused on racial exclusion—there were few Black Bostonians anyway—than it was with maintaining property values and enhancing each town’s relative class position. 

In essence, zoning was seen as a means to prevent the transition of affluent areas into working-class neighborhoods.

The bulk of the report focuses on zoning for racial exclusion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, asking if there were “enough open intent for us to call racism a primary motivator of zoning” before answering in the affirmative: “In my assessment, the environmental concerns, traffic headaches, growth pains, and growth concentrations cannot explain the force, speed, depth, and spread of the Big Downzone.” 

Dain marshals considerable evidence from contemporaneous planning documents, calling attention to overwhelmingly white towns’ explicitly stated “socal goals” of accommodating “moderate population growth in a manner consistent with the present characteristics” and emphasizing towns’ desire to ensure that multifamily housing and small-lot single family homes be restricted to local seniors and town employees.

Boston suburbs’ efforts to use zoning to exclude families with children sit somewhere between fiscal and racial zoning. Motivated by a desire to avoid paying for schools, many towns forbid any multifamily housing unless it was designed to discourage family occupancy – or was explicitly reserved for seniors, who were overwhelmingly white.

All told, Dain’s report paints a picture of suburban governments that favored housing for insiders rather than new migrants, or even the children of existing residents – and to put local interests over regional needs. The report concludes with a call for profound zoning reform.

Alongside its thorough history of Boston area suburban zoning, the report details the outcomes of strict zoning with discretionary approvals for new homes. The combination tightly constrain new housing, and give local officials leverage to impose conditions on project approval, like age restrictions:

For much development today, zoning is hazier and more flexible, subject to negotiation, a game of uncertain outcomes, where municipalities have sought to increase their discretionary control of change. […]

Discretionary approval gives municipalities the ability to a) kill or downsize projects that they find unfavorable, b) shape projects (beyond what measurable dimensional requirements mandate), c) determine builder-led mitigation strategies to address possible negative impacts of projects on the community, and d) sometimes even capture value from lucrative developments (beyond what is needed for mitigation) and directing it towards public ends. Value capture and mitigation can include infrastructure upgrades, donations to funds, inclusion of deed-restricted affordable homes, and other benefits.