This Data Shows Who Grabs the Mic at Public Planning Meetings

Report puts numbers to the racial disparity.

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Andrew DeFranza has seen it countless times: An affordable housing project proposed in a mostly white, well-off community goes before the zoning board or the planning commission. A vocal minority of homeowners, themselves mostly white and well off, show up to oppose it. The project is killed, shrunk or delayed by litigation for years.

“We hear a lot of, ‘I’m in support of affordable housing, just not here,’” says DeFranza, who’s the executive director of Harborlight Community Partners, a community development corporation in southern Essex County in Greater Boston.

He wasn’t surprised to hear the findings in “Racial Disparities in Housing Politics: Evidence from Administrative Data,” a new paper by Boston University researchers. As the Boston Globe reported last week, the study of public meetings in nearly 100 Greater Boston cities showed that white people accounted for 95 percent of participants. In the same area, white people make up 80 percent of the population. Using an analysis of last names and geographic data from public meetings, the researchers concluded that “whites overwhelmingly dominate zoning and planning board meetings.” (Details on how the BU researchers determined the race of participants are in the “Estimating Race” section of the paper.)

Latinos make up 8 percent of the population in the area they studied, but had 1 percent representation at meetings. The population is 4 percent African-American residents, but just 2 percent of public meeting participants were African-American.

“We find that citizen participants are overwhelmingly white — far more so than the demographics of their communities would indicate,” the authors wrote (emphasis theirs). “Controlling for a variety of important demographic and contextual characteristics, race powerfully predicts public participation in the planning and zoning process. These racial disparities are far worse than they are in other forms of political participation.”

In a separate study released this year, the same authors, Katherine Levine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer and David Glick of BU’s Political Science department, found that men, older residents and homeowners were also overrepresented at public meetings on development issues. Moreover, that study found, public meeting participants tended to be more opposed to new development than the community as a whole. Einstein says the researchers chose to separate out racial identities because they were somewhat trickier to identify than the other characteristics.

She says their analysis confirms the widely held impressions that NIMBYs tend to be older, whiter and wealthier than their typical neighbors. She hopes it provides some empirical evidence for policymakers who are thinking about how to make public participation in development more democratic. But it won’t be easy to simply replicate the study in other metro areas, Einstein says.

“It would be brutal,” she says. “It was a huge data undertaking just to do this for two years of data.”

Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, says the research can be valuable even though it’s not very surprising.

“I think that study does a good job of calling out the fact that the way the system operates, when left to its own devices, has a significant bias in favor of homeowners, the middle class, whites and immediately adjacent property owners,” Kriesberg says.

Kriesberg says that even though the public participation elements of the development process may seem democratic on paper — they give residents a chance to weigh in on projects — they can’t be counted on as an accurate reflection of public attitudes toward new development. Many if not most of the affordable housing projects that Massachusetts CDCs propose — and even market-rate projects proposed by private developers — end up smaller than initially planned because of sustained opposition from what is often a handful of neighbors. That opposition can have major impacts on affordable housing supplies regionwide.

Kriesberg says the BU study is a reminder that advocates for affordable housing need to be careful when they talk about “community control” of development.

“When you just say ‘community control,’ which many do, I think that there’s a risk that the community that will gain control may not be the community you think or want to have gain control,” he says.

DeFranza, of Harborlight Community Partners, says the disparity in public participation reflects a privileged class trying to protect its assets, earned and unearned. A lot of communities in the Boston metro were developed through single-family zoning and implicit or explicit policies that kept out homeowners of color, he says. The fact that white homeowners tend to be so opposed to new development reflects “a residual, common understanding” that those communities are supposed to stay white and wealthy even though racially restrictive covenants and other segregationist policies are no longer legally enforceable, DeFranza says. Even though it may be officially colorblind, the public participation process often still favors the most privileged members of a community.

“Our public policy is structured to give the people who are in possession of the existing status quo power over other people,” DeFranza says.

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Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.

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Tags: affordable housingbostoncommunity-engaged designnimbys

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