Whose voices are heard in local decision making?

By: Mia Watson

In our increasing complex system of government, housing is one of few policy areas that is still largely decided at the local level. Resident input can have a significant influence on the number and types of homes that are built in a community. However, a study of local governments in Massachusetts reveals that people who participate in planning and zoning meetings often do not match the demographics of their communities as a whole. The study suggests that this lack of representation has contributed to the affordable housing crisis that America is currently facing.

The Massachusetts study, conducted by researchers from the Boston University Initiative on Cities, found that homeowners were considerably more likely to participate in housing-related meetings than renters. Meeting participants were older, were disproportionately men and were disproportionately white compared to the population of the towns that they lived in.

63 percent of meeting participants and public commenters studied opposed housing initiatives, with just 14 percent expressing support while the rest were rated as neutral. White residents were much more likely to oppose new development than other groups. Opponents of new housing often cited raise traffic, environmental and public safety concerns, while supporters highlighted housing affordability issues.

Affordable housing tended to be much more popular among actual voters than meeting participants. 56 percent of Massachusetts voters supported a statewide ballot referendum measure promoting affordable housing, and the measure received majority support in 65 percent of the communities examined in the study. However, it is important to note that voting participation itself tends to be non-representative, especially in local elections, with voters more likely to be higher-income, older and White than non-voters.

Simply put, the very people who are most likely to support and who would most benefit from affordable housing, including renter and low-income households, are missing from the debate. The authors of the Massachusetts study link this tendency to the severe lack of new housing and correspondingly high home prices in most areas of country. 

As Vermont attempts to address its own affordable housing crisis through initiatives like the Zoning for Great Neighborhoods project, its cities and towns will need to harness greater community support for regulatory and land use changes. The authors of this study urge local governments to carefully consider how much meeting participants should influence the development of housing policy and make more of an effort to engage residents who are less likely to attend meetings. At the same time, they also advise municipalities to remove at least some aspects of housing development from public meetings by expanding the types of development that are permitted by right.