In one of my favorite books (and movies), “The Princess Bride,” one of the villains repeatedly uses the word “Inconceivable!” at the hero’s ability to escape the traps laid for him. Finally one of the other characters tells him, “I do not think [that word] means what you think it means.”
That’s the way I feel about the way the word “discrimination” keeps cropping up in the discussion of growth, development, and housing policy in Newton.
Those of us who grew up in America in the 50s and 60s have a pretty clear idea of what racial discrimination means, and we remember its devastating impact on communities and schools. As a boy in California, I clearly recall when the New York (baseball) Giants moved the team to San Francisco in 1958 and my shock and embarrassment when the team’s star player, future Hall of Famer Willie Mays, sought to buy a home for himself and his family in a suburb of San Francisco and a group of white neighbors tried to keep him out. That was racial discrimination, blatant and ugly. Later, all of us would come to learn about redlining, extortionate mortgages, block-busting, and other tactics that were employed to divide and exploit communities.
Nothing in Newton remotely resembles those days. Yet in a recent column in the Newton Tab (Wed., May 4, 2016, p. B3), Sheila Mondshein, the former chairwoman of the Newton Fair Housing Committee, alludes to “problems of housing discrimination and unequal housing opportunities [that] still persist nationally and locally.” In support of that statement, she cites “a series of testing audits performed in 2006”—a decade ago!—that revealed discriminatory treatment of certain classes of people by people in the real estate industry. She subsequently provides a full list of all the discriminatory conditions that are prohibited by the fair housing law in Massachusetts, including “race, color, national origin, religion, disability, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, genetic information, marital status, familial status, and receipt of public assistance (including rental vouchers).” I imagine that most Newton residents are in agreement about opposing such types of discrimination.
However, Ms. Mondshein goes on to explain that a violation of the fair housing law may also arise “where a neutral practice or policy has a greater adverse impact on a protected class, or where it acts to reinforce or continue segregated housing patterns.” She further notes that the duty to “’affirmatively further fair housing’…requires the city to consider conditions of residential segregation and isolation as they may exist within the city and its applicable housing market area, and to undertake meaningful efforts to reduce those conditions and to promote housing choice and access to opportunities within the City.”
To the best of my knowledge, that is precisely what Newton has done. It has created an inclusionary zoning provision in its zoning ordinance. Apartment complexes and condominium buildings of various sizes are available to all and include a percentage of affordable units on either a rental or an ownership basis. And the local organization CAN-DO continues year after year to renovate houses to create affordable housing, again available to all qualified applicants.
I can walk through my neighborhood in the area of Newton Highlands south of Route 9 and encounter residents from virtually all of the categories set forth in the fair housing statutes, all living together in apparent harmony. While I am not as familiar with every other Newton neighborhood, I suspect that the same thing is true there as well. Nevertheless I am fully aware that today, just as when my wife and I were looking for a home 35 years ago, there are many places where I know we cannot live—Dover, Weston, and Lincoln, for example, and more locally, West Newton Hill, Chestnut Hill, and Bald Pate Hill—and we have made our peace with that fact. I suppose one could categorize this as a form of economic segregation, but no rational person ought to confuse it with “discrimination” as that term is commonly understood.
Ms. Mondshein cites the unfortunate Engine 6 episode as another evidence of discrimination in Newton. The truth is that while the Engine 6 building might have been a good location for senior housing, I can say, speaking as a Vietnam vet, that it was ill-situated for housing my former colleagues who had fallen on hard times and were now homeless. They would, I feel sure, have considered its location in a corner of Waban as the “a**-end of nowhere,” remote from downtown Boston where they would have found the atmosphere far more congenial to their taste and interests.
In her column, Ms. Mondshein also alludes to NIMBYism as having played “a prominent role in local opposition to several other recent affordable housing proposals.” I will admit that I am among those who have opposed the Wells Avenue, Court Street, Austin Street, Rowe Street, and St. Philip Neri projects, but I’d like to suggest that there are valid reasons for doing so that have nothing to do with wanting to exclude entire categories of people such as those listed above. Some Newton residents and City officials are advocates for greater residential density—such as the Mayor’s desire to add 3,200 residential units to Newton’s housing stock—while others of us feel that Newton is largely built-out and lacks the infrastructure to handle such intense development. I believe that these are both legitimate policy positions, and I anticipate that there will be a sustained debate over these and related zoning matters in the next couple of years. It would be nice if we could keep that discussion civil by dialing back the use of terms as heavily freighted as “discrimination”—and for that matter, “NIMBY.”