The skyline of Worcester, Massachusetts after sunset in 2017.
For local government officials who consider public comments when making decisions about housing policies, an academic paper released earlier this year offers a cautionary note.
Researchers at Boston University found that people who turn out to speak at planning and zoning board meetings tend to overwhelmingly oppose new housing development. Compared to other residents, these meeting goers are also more likely to be older, male, and homeowners.
“It’s problematic in part because planning and zoning board officials are listening to these unrepresentative voices and being influenced by them,” Katherine Levine Einstein, a Boston University professor and one of the paper’s authors, said by phone on Tuesday.
“People who are actually showing up,” she added, “are biased in a variety of troubling ways.”
The researchers say their study, which looked at part of Massachusetts, is the first to document inequalities in who shows up and makes comments at local public meetings about housing.
It found that opposition to new housing construction was strong among meeting participants even in places that showed support for affordable housing measures when voting in elections.
The authors acknowledge that the benefits of new housing might not always be obvious to the general public, which could help to explain the way the comments tend to skew.
People who could eventually benefit from new residential development might not even live in the jurisdiction where a project is to be built. In contrast, new housing has visible and immediate effects for people living in a neighborhood where construction takes place.
Planning and zoning boards in Massachusetts review housing development not permitted by right under local zoning codes. In many cases, developers are seeking exceptions to regulations.
One example of a project mentioned in the paper was a 36-unit condominium building proposed in Worcester during 2015 that elicited pushback.
To conduct the study, the research team assembled a dataset of all citizen participants in planning and zoning board meetings between 2015 and 2017, in 97 cities and towns outside of Boston. This involved downloading all available hearing minutes for those meetings.
Using the meeting records, the researchers built a database of public comments for each project with more than one unit of housing.
The database included commenter names and addresses. Comments were coded according to whether a person supported, opposed, or was neutral toward a proposed project. They were also able to match 2,784 of 3,327 commenters in the database with voter files, allowing for further analysis of demographics like age, gender and party affiliation.
Among their findings were that 63 percent of all comments analyzed were in opposition to proposed housing development, while only about 14.6 percent were in support.
Opposition was common across party lines, with only 19 percent of Democrats and just shy of 13 percent of Republicans backing the housing proposals they weighed in on.
Women made up 43 percent of commenters, while making up 51 percent of people in the voter file, indicating that men were over-represented among commenters. The average commenter age was 58, while in the overall voter file it was 50.
While older and male community members were more likely to make comments, age and gender were not good predictors of whether a person would be for or against new development.
Assessing homeownership was more difficult. But the researchers did match 85 individuals who participated in meetings in the town of Arlington with property deed data. Although 39 percent of the town rents housing, just 22 percent of meeting participants were renters.
To investigate whether commenters were offering perspectives that were out of step with broader community views, the researchers looked at voting results from a 2010 Massachusetts ballot referendum to repeal what’s known as Chapter 40B.
The state law gives developers a pathway to bypass local zoning regulations if they meet certain criteria that have to do with affordable housing. It’s seen as a pro-housing law. The repeal effort failed, with 58 percent of voters statewide casting ballots to keep the law in place.
For the cities included in the study, 56 percent of voters opposed the repeal effort. “This is a significantly greater level of support than evinced by the mere 15% of meeting commenters who spoke in support of the construction of new housing,” the researchers noted.
They later added that “while voters in these towns supported affordable housing construction in the abstract, a significant majority of those who attended development meetings opposed the development of specific project proposals.”
In terms of the concerns that commenters mentioned, supporters of new housing were apt to mention affordability.
Opponents were likely to raise issues tied to traffic, the environment, flooding and safety.
The study authors say that among the roughly 11 percent of commenters who cited “neighborhood character” in their opposition to new housing, some may have used “racially coded language.”
Follow-up research that Levine Einstein said is due out this week will look at the race and ethnicity of meeting participants. “The results are even more troubling,” she said, adding that people participating in the meetings are predominantly white even in places that are not.
In one city, Levine Einstein said, she and her colleagues found only one commenter with a Latino surname over a two-year timeframe, even though about 75 percent of the city is Latino.
‘Hard to Engage’
Adam Chapdelaine is the town manager in Arlington, which has about 45,000 residents and is located on the outskirts of Boston. About 95 percent of the five-and-half square mile town is residential and many residents commute into Boston or Cambridge for work.
Chapdelaine hadn’t read the study. But after hearing a summary, he said the findings generally sounded in line with town meetings in Arlington—not just on housing but on other issues as well.
“It’s very hard to engage large cross sections of your total population on any issue,” he said.
“The people you do engage usually they have, or feel like they have, a very deep, vested interest on one side of the issue,” he added.
In recent years, Arlington officials have considered a “mixed-use” zoning measure to allow for higher construction in commercial areas, with the possibility of housing or offices built atop ground floor retail. The plan prompted some criticism, but eventually passed.
People also voiced concerns this past year over an update to the town’s zoning bylaws and what that would mean for development.
Chapdelaine said Arlington could use more housing, affordable and otherwise.
Last year, the town joined the Metropolitan Mayors Coalition, a group of 14 communities in the Boston region. Hopefully in about a month he said the group would issue a “housing production goal.”
Underpinning the housing blueprint is the notion that for the Boston region to remain economically competitive it needs an adequate supply of housing that people can afford.
Chapdelaine is optimistic that opposition from town residents won’t necessarily become a roadblock to future housing construction and that it will be possible to find middle ground on this front.
“When people come out in the community to express views and opposition,” he said, “it helps us sharpen our pencil, helps us consider things we might not be considering otherwise.”
Levine Einstein says she hopes what local officials take away from her study is that the people who show up to public meetings are a subset of the wider population. “They really need to be thinking creatively about how they’re going to hear the broader voices,” she said.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.