By Abby McCabe
FRAMINGHAM – What does systemic racism look like today in Massachusetts? It looks like whites staunchly protecting their neighborhoods from anything that is perceived as non-white. Many communities make it illegal or nearly impossible to build housing other than single-family. Two and three-family, or larger residential buildings are often not allowed or heavily regulated. Childcare, education, and religious uses are valued and allowed anywhere. Single residences dominate the suburbs and are fiercely protected needing nothing other than a building permit.
Meanwhile housing in any other form is over-regulated, subjected to public hearings, long appeal processes, and its fate subject to the whims of a few which are overwhelmingly white.
Zoning specifies what, where, and how uses are allowed in a community. Zoning may have been conceived to separate residential areas from industrial and manufacturing but have evolved to a legal means to exclude a variety of housing arrangements, creating segregated neighborhoods. The purpose of protection from incompatible and noxious uses was designed for and by white people.
The State Zoning Enabling Act was adopted in 1954, three months after the Supreme Court declared segregation in schools illegal in Brown vs. Board of
Education. Zoning is exceedingly difficult to change. Requiring long public processes, limited opportunities for changes, and super majority voting requirements, zoning amendments can be near-impossible. Zoning and project implications should certainly be meticulously researched but we should be mindful of how and why zoning is the way it is and delve into its greater implications. We should be sensitive to the physical barriers we create.
Where one lives, particularly during childhood has a profound impact on one’s future. It can provide opportunities to flourish and develop a sense of self confidence. It can also deny access to education, transportation, jobs, and other vital resources.
The latest fad is zoning moratoriums, often proposed in response to apartments.
A moratorium is a community’s way of stopping development in the guise of temporary pauses to study the impacts. This sounds like school segregationists’ arguments that segregation was not harmful to Blacks. Seventy years later these moratoriums have been brought forward with the same
racist argument made here in Framingham as well as many other localities.
When housing is proposed oppositional remarks can take the form of fearmongering by citing insurmountable impact to schools, property values, and traffic. Fear may be reasonable, but arguments can devolve into malicious attacks, suggesting that developments will attract predators, and that renters are not desirable folks to have in the neighborhood. Proponents can be booed for speaking in support. The racial undertones persist even after fully engineered plans and studies have been presented which debunk false claims.
Developers have resorted to luxury condos or apartments as a route to succeed in obtaining approval.
Zoning and fears of obscure consequences have contributed to the housing shortage and high costs of living. The median single-family home price in Framingham and the region has surpassed $400k. One must have significant finances to be a homeowner, an advantage that Black and people of color often do not have. Given the ever-increasing cost of higher education, which correlates to job opportunities and healthcare, housing is critical to dismantling the inherent racism created by zoning.
Cities are a desirable place to live, especially Boston; they are full of diversity in all forms, from education to entertainment. However, the lack of housing and access to jobs has led Boston to become the third most expensive city to live in this country.
If you are displaying a Black Lives Matter sign, you should also welcome more housing opportunities by supporting inclusionary zoning. Zoning should allow different housing types for different needs, desires, ages, and income levels.
Housing should be regarded as a basic human right and not treated as a noxious use. Other measures such as home buying and rental assistance, pricing limits, and incentives for lower cost housing are also needed, like what was done for white people after WW II.
We cannot hope things will change; we must plan for change. We must make changes that create more equitable communities to attract jobs and educational opportunities for everyone, regardless of race or income level. If you genuinely do not want to be racist, you must work to achieve racial justice by sharing our resources, our neighborhoods, our schools, and make a concerted effort to create safe places.
Systemic racism is so dangerous because people have been convinced it does not exist. But it does and it is running as rampant in Massachusetts as the coronavirus. Today it can look like zoning that blocks anything other than single-family housing and casually signing petitions.
Black Lives Matter is a political movement seeking the freedom and equality enjoyed by whites. The Movement has gained wide-spread support across the country including white areas establishing the necessary political will for transformative change. Now is the time to finally value Black lives by removing barriers to create a stronger more resilient, humanitarian, and compassionate society.
Abby McCabe lives on Warren Road in Framingham.