The Meaning of “Discrimination” in Newton

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.”

Rising septuagenarian; 40-year resident of Newton, though a Northern Californian by birth. Married, with two Millennial daughters who are products of the Newton school system (Countryside, Brown, NSHS).

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Jerry Reilly
Jerry Reilly

I agree that carelessly throwing around the term “discrimination” to tar anybody who is against a specific development project is unfair and happens much too frequently.

That being said, I think it’s a bit naive to jump from there to assuming that plain ole discrimination, racial and otherwise, is not part of this discussion and does not exist today in our community.

You mentioned both the Engine 6 and Philip Neri projects. I happened to have been at public meetings for both those projects and had numerous non-public conversations with lots of people about both those projects.

I completely agree that on both projects there were many reasons, none of them having to do with discrimination, why an individual may have been opposed to them. I also agree that the majority of people who were opposed were dealing in good faith and were not motivated by discrimination. BUT on both projects, at both the public meetings and in private conversations I heard people make reprehensible comments clearly driven by discrimination.

So yes, let’s not throw loaded insults whenever we disagree with people but also let’s not ignore the very real discrimination that still does exist, yes today, and yes in our very own community.

John, a couple of things you might need cleared up. First, there is still old fashioned discrimination going on in Newton. In 2005, the city hired the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston to do paired-testing of rental housing in Newton. The results were astonishing. Almost half the time, real estate agents and landlords discriminated against people of color, Latinos, and disabled persons in renting housing. The city won an award from the Citizens Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA) for this groundbreaking work, and ten years later it is probably time for the city to follow up. (I take particular pride in the paired testing and that award, because I persuaded the city to apply for funds from HUD to perform the testing based on a suggestion from my good friend Nadine Cohen, who was a lawyer with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law at the time.) Second, what you leave out of your reminiscence about past discrimination is the notorious redlining practice that kept people of color out in Boston and out of communities like Newton for many, many years. This pernicious practice was the policy of the Federal Housing Authority from 1934 through 1968–when the Fair Housing Act was passed–which denied services and mortgages to people of color in inner cities. The racial segregation in housing that resulted from this discriminatory policy persists to this day, as most people of color in Massachusetts live in a handful of neighborhoods in major cities in the Commonwealth.… Read more »

I have removed two comments because they violated Newton Forum’s policy – available from the home page.

Sallee Lipshutz

@Chris, General question about the policies on this blog. Were the comments removed above made anonymously or were they inappropriate? If they were inappropriate, are you the sole arbiter of the appropriateness of the reply as to whether it is polite? Ted Hess-Mahan continues to refer to this blog as the NVA blog. I have agreed to write for this blog , but it was never described to me as an NVA blog. I am not naïve and know that many authors wear both hats! Since I don’t belong to the NVA, I wonder if there are any other authors who do not belong to the NVA? What percentage of the authors on this blog are NVA members? I enjoy this blog, but would like to see more people commenting in dissent. Why? because I think it hones my thinking, and everyone else’s too? Foolish responders are quickly dismissed and ignored. Also can you explain the mechanism used to promote this blog through paid ads? I really like transparency!

Hi Sallee, I removed a comment because it included a personal attack on a named individual, which is a violation of NewtonForum.org policy, and I removed another comment that referred to the objectionable comment since it didn’t make sense after the objectionable comment was gone. I later learned that the person who had posted the objectionable comment was posting under a false name, another violation of NewtonForum.org, so that person is now blocked from participating on this site. These two have been the only comments I’ve felt I had to remove or block to date. Yes, I am the sole arbiter of whether or not a comment or post conforms to NewtonForum.org policy. I think the tone has been polite so far, and I think that helps people of different points of view all feel welcome. I am going to answer your other questions in a new blog post called “In Case You Were Wondering…”

Jerry Reilly
Jerry Reilly

BTW – I love the photo you used on the site’s Policy page.

Marti Bowen
Marti Bowen

A very interesting post. I agree that there are many reasons not to want a particular development on a particular site that have nothing to do with discrimination. I think every development should be viewed individually before drawing a conclusion. I have supported some and been against others for a variety of reasons. I lived through the racial discrimination and violence of the 60’s as a teenager in the southeast. I participated in the protests, stood in support as Woolworth’s served black people sitting at its counter, watched terrified as a huge cross burned in my front yard, just to name a few ways I witnessed discrimination. The main difference I see is that this past racial discrimination was supported by our government so it went unchecked until a change was demanded. Now almost all types of discrimination, not just racial, are illegal, but instead of going away, its practice has evolved into being more subtle, but not invisible, and includes a wide variety new people. New categories include the homeless, the disabled, families and renters. Over the years people have relentlessly pursued loopholes until the laws are once again revised. Discrimination is inherent and hidden in us and many of its practices can seem like reasonable ideas, until the reasons are fleshed out. If the reason includes protection or making assumptions about a group as a whole, it may be discrimination. Not wanting 3 bedroom units included in a development may seem like keeping our schools the right size… Read more »