Michael Seward: The role zoning plays in systemic racism

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Amherst officials fail to see the forest for the trees if the best they can do to address racial justice is discuss the town’s policing policies. According to the town’s own website, only 6.1% of the population is Black. If they really want to address systemic racism, they should start by exploring why that is. It’s not that hard to figure out.

The majority of every western Massachusetts city and town is white. That by itself is a reflection of systemic racism. A municipality’s bylaws have built upon what white people have wanted for themselves throughout our nation’s sordid past, even in some of the most liberal towns in one of the most liberal states. There are simply not enough opportunities for minorities to live among us.

Massachusetts has some of the worst economic inequality in the nation, and economic inequality disproportionally affects minorities. The result is minorities can’t afford to live in town’s where housing is cost-prohibitive for the less fortunate. One way to make housing more affordable is to remove hurdles to certain types of housing enshrined in a municipality’s zoning bylaws, the purpose for which in Amherst is to promote, “the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the inhabitants of the Town of Amherst, and to encourage the most appropriate use of land throughout Amherst.”

While it is easy to build a single-family home in Amherst, every single residential zone in Amherst either excludes, requires a special permit, or some other hurdle to build and live in more affordable housing options, like a duplex or an apartment building. If municipalities want to combat systemic racism, they need to address exclusionary zoning to promote a more inclusive community. Exclusionary zoning is an example of systemic racism that we can do something about locally.

Town officials and citizens need to explore what, “health, safety, convenience and general welfare” actually means to themselves. Because their zoning bylaws indicate it means keeping certain people out. And the police don’t write zoning bylaws.

Michael Seward


The author is a licensed real estate broker.