From racist real estate practices to bigoted laws, the Boston suburbs are largely white for a reason

The big story last week was that Boston is the third most “intensely gentrified” city in the US, according to a new study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, an economic justice nonprofit in Washington, DC. And I know everyone is just shocked, right? Who would have thought? I mean other than everyone who lives in the city.

But here’s a fun question: Why are so many people of color in the city to begin with? Why weren’t they in most suburbs until recently historically? Other than the fact that most jobs are in and just around Boston, and the densest web of public transportation is also found here. Making the consequences of said gentrification all the more disturbing.

And why are people of color still underrepresented in so many Boston suburbs? When so many of them are being forced out of the city.

Well, I’ve certainly covered this ground before, but in brief the answer is: Because of structural racism created by a white-dominated establishment. And both individual and collective acts of racism by whites. Since Black slaves were freed by their own struggle, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War; successive waves of Latino immigrants came to the US seeking economic opportunities unavailable to them in Central and Latin American nations looted by American companies backed by the American military; and Asian immigrants were finally allowed to move here in significant numbers after the racist exclusion acts that kept them away were overturned in the 1960s.

People of color simply weren’t allowed to live in most Massachusetts cities and towns outside of Boston until that time. No matter how well they did economically. Due to racist laws and regulations which were gradually struck down over the course of the 20th century, and by direct (and frequently violent) action by racist whites. 

To this day, as yet another in an endless series of similar studies has shown—this one done by Suffolk University Law School and the Boston Foundation—if renters of color don’t have money and qualify for a Section 8 voucher, many landlords in the Greater Boston area illegally deny them units.

And if people of color have enough money to rent an apartment or buy a house? Matched pair studies like the one above where researchers send, for example, one Black couple and one white couple with identical jobs and incomes to the same realtors in the same communities tell the tale. If the Black couple is looking in a white neighborhood in Boston they get shown properties in Black neighborhoods and if they are looking in a white suburb they get shown properties in suburbs with Black neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe just ran a short piece on the fact that racially restrictive covenants on deeds that literally say people of color can’t live in a property—and that have been illegal for decades—still exist. Even if they no longer have the force of law. Yet why is such language still on deeds at all? Because white homeowners and the white lawyers who review deeds during home sales are still often racist. The Globe article frames the situation as mostly a series of oversights. But who’s kidding who?

Returning to gentrification, there are many reasons it’s occurring in Boston. But the main ones are that a) the city is a hot real estate market, and b) the city is not building anywhere near enough public housing with subsidized rents. And, naturally, structural racism suffuses both processes. Adding to capitalist economic processes that view housing as a commodity, and allow people and corporations with money to enrich themselves by immiserating legions of others. Building huge numbers of “luxury condos”—many of which simply sit fallow as investment properties where offshore investors can park their often ill-gotten gains from abroad. Typically on land—in a land-starved market—that should have been used to meet the need for public housing.

Gentrification is also occurring in the near suburbs where people of color have moved in the last few decades as Boston got more expensive after the deindustrialization that depopulated the city reached its apex in the 1970s: Chelsea, Everett, Somerville, Quincy, and Lynn, for example. And in (similarly depopulated) former industrial suburbs like Brockton, Framingham, Worcester, Lowell, and Lawrence. Which is where racist suburban town leaders and realtors would shove people of color looking for cheaper rent and houses once the urban core became unaffordable. Even after the Civil Rights Movement made it possible for people of color to get federal housing loans and move out of major urban areas—which they hadn’t been able to do after World War II when huge numbers of working class whites were able to move out of cities and into the middle class because of such subsidies. Putting them at a further disadvantage than the inequities they already suffered from.

Virtually all communities within two hours of the city—which is pretty much the maximum distance that a worker can reasonably commute by car to Boston and still have any kind of life—have seen housing prices go up and up for a quarter century now. With some brief downturns after periodic economic crashes. So the gentrification that started in Boston has moved in a vast circular wave front engulfing communities all the way to Rhode Island, southern New Hampshire, and Central Mass. Even as Cape Cod was already pricey because of the tourist industry there.

If we had any kind of rational regional planning, city and town governments across Eastern Massachusetts with strong backing from the state and federal governments would be engaged in a crash program to build tens of thousands of units of decent working and middle class public housing—social housing, as the Europeans properly call it—to make sure that every working family who needs a place to live near their jobs can get one

If we had any kind of rational political system, we would strike down all the remaining racist laws, regulations, and practices that wealthy and predominantly white suburbs like Hingham, Weston, Concord, Winchester, etc., etc. have used to stay as white as possible. Including mandatory large housing lot sizes and other cheap tricks to prevent the construction of public housing—or even privately-owned apartment complexes and single-family houses on smaller lots. We would also pass rent control legislation and related protections statewide to finally give renters a break. Plus put limits on the profits that can be made by real estate speculators, and mandate that all housing built needs to be occupied. To cool the market off to a level that the people who live in it can handle.

All that considered, if white people—particularly suburban whites—want to understand why there is a revived Black Lives Matter movement, think of everything I just reviewed, plus endemic racist violence from predatory police, and add the massive job loss and social dislocation caused by the coronavirus crisis to it. Then recognize that most of the people working the front line jobs that put food on your tables and provide myriad critical services you need are people of color. Who are then getting COVID-19 at rates far higher than the white population. In part due to a structurally underfunded and racist public health system that results in worse outcomes for infected people of color.

So if white people living in largely white suburbs think that they aren’t part of the problem, they couldn’t be more wrong.

Meaning rather than dismissing or even mocking the anti-racist movement in question—as so many suburban whites I know personally do—perhaps the right thing would be to figure out how to join it. Yes?

Apparent Horizon—recipient of 2018 and 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia Political Column Awards—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. Contact for more information. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2020 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.