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BU study finds local land boards dominated by homeowners in Massachusetts

Local boards that oversee land use and housing construction in Massachusetts are dominated by white male homeowners, potentially skewing their decisions, according to a Boston University study of nearly two dozen cities released Wednesday.

Boston University researchers found roughly two-thirds of members were homeowners, even though most of the voters in the communities were renters. The researchers examined zoning, planning and other boards in 22 cities across the state.

Political science professor Katherine Levine Einstein said the difference matters because homeowners might be less willing to approve plans for new apartments and condos in order to protect the value of existing homes.

"The underrepresentation of renters means that those concerns about rising housing costs may not be fully represented on these boards," said the BU professor.

In the long run, Einstein added, that disparity could be a factor driving up housing prices and making it harder for renters to buy a place of their own.

The study also found that people of color and renters are often underrepresented in municipal surveys about land use. For instance, BU researchers found homeowners make up 54% of Newton voters, but 93% of the people who participated in a city poll on local development.

Einstein said municipalities need to be "deliberate about inclusivity" when they conduct surveys.

At this point, BU researchers concluded, the voices of people who would most benefit from new housing are "almost entirely absent" from the government's decision-making process.

David J. Harris, former head of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School, said the BU study highlights one of the ways segregation and inequality are woven into even pedestrian issues, like zoning decisions.

"These seemingly minor events constitute yet another form of exclusion, at once discriminatory and an exacerbation of past exclusionary practices," Harris said in an email.

Separately, a forthcoming report in Milton also faults that city's lack of diversity in local government.

"Those serving the town and representing its institutions, in the aggregate, do not reflect the diversity of the town itself," according to a draft copy of a report by a commission established in the aftermath of the killing of Minneapolis resident George Floyd. The commission found a lack of diversity in elected officials, town boards and municipal employees.

The report also found the level of affordable housing in Milton fell far short of state guidelines.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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