New report explores a century of zoning policy as a tool of exclusion in Greater Boston

"Exclusionary By Design” examines the motives behind zoning restrictions as a force in racial and class segregation across communities

November 8, 2023

Boston – A new report from researcher Amy Dain released today by Boston Indicators and the Boston Foundation examines how zoning policy over the past century has been used to shape the de facto segregation of Greater Boston along racial and class lines.

In Exclusionary by Design: An Investigation of Zoning’s Use as a Tool of Race, Class, and Family Exclusion in Boston’s Suburbs, 1920 to Today, Dain explores the history of zoning in several Greater Boston communities through planning documents, state reports and local media accounts to trace how, despite explicit prohibitions on racial covenants, community zoning decisions were used to deny the opportunity for lower-income, BIPOC and immigrant households to access rental and homeownership opportunities.

“To understand the socio-geographic polarization of Greater Boston, the concentration of wealth and poverty in different jurisdictions, and disparate access to opportunity across places -- one must look to zoning policy,” said M. Lee Pelton, President and CEO of the Boston Foundation. “Too often, as Amy Dain shows so effectively in her exploration of this nuanced and complex issue, the result is policies carefully shaped to lock out ‘outsiders,’ reinforcing racial and economic patterns of segregation, inequity, and injustice.”

Using historical documents as her guide, Dain finds that over decades, many suburbs of Boston used zoning explicitly to recruit and retain wealthy people and inhibit the ability of lower-income, lower-wealth households to access homes in those municipalities. In the post-war decades, in particular, Dain’s research shows it was common for municipalities to use zoning explicitly to increase or protect their socio-economic ranking by zoning for low-density housing and tightly restricting or banning apartment development. Dain also found significant evidence from throughout the past century of class elitism motivating zoning adoption and reform in Boston suburbs. Her analysis indicates that a central purpose of zoning, as practiced, has been to bolster the exclusivity of municipalities.

“No zoning in Massachusetts has ever been explicitly racial,” Dain notes. “It segregates indirectly by preventing new construction of diverse housing types and limiting total buildout. As a result, prices of scarce housing get bid up in the most exclusive communities, making them inaccessible to lower-income, lower-wealth, and by correlation non-white, households.”

For Exclusionary by Design, Dain separates exclusionary zoning into three types: fiscal, class and racist zoning; and into four eras, spanning the original implementation of zoning, the tightening of regulations during the post-WWII era, the “Big Downzone” of the 1960s and 1970s, and the period since 1975, when incremental but accelerating progress begins to provide limited progress and cautious hope for the future.

Throughout the history of zoning in Greater Boston, it has been illegal to use zoning to segregate by race. No official municipal documents cite segregation by race as a purpose of zoning. Yet, her research shows evidence from throughout zoning's history that racism has had a role in the establishment of tight zoning restrictions against lower-cost types of housing. In the 1970s, at the peak of efforts to desegregate the region and schools by race, and while Black and immigrant populations of Greater Boston increased in size, most suburbs banned the development of apartments. A review of municipal statements shows that the apartment bans were, at least in part, a reaction to demographic changes in the region.

Despite state-level efforts, such as the implementation of Chapter 40B in 1969, which made possible tens of thousands of units of deed-restricted housing, the zoning changes of the “Big Downzone” have remained in place in many communities, even as attention on inclusion and housing affordability place pressure on communities to create more residential properties.

“Despite noble intentions around racial diversity and inclusion, neighborhood resistance empowered by zoning rules has made reform difficult in recent decades,” said Luc Schuster, Executive Director of Boston Indicators. “The narrower that political boundaries are drawn, the more ‘outsiders’ are created, and the desire to exclude these outsiders coupled with increased demand for housing in Greater Boston have led us to where we are today – with racial and class segregation across communities and ever higher cost burdens on families of all races and incomes.”

The report is available now for download via and