A Q&A with Soni Gupta of The Boston Foundation on building a more diverse city

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Soni Gupta, (left) director of neighborhoods and housing for The Boston Foundation and Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards (right) are at LoPresti Park in East Boston. Edwards is the lead sponsor of an initiative to draft fair housing into the zoning code.
Soni Gupta, (left) director of neighborhoods and housing for The Boston Foundation and Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards at LoPresti Park in East Boston. Edwards is the lead sponsor of an initiative to draft fair housing into the zoning code. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Boston has a regrettable reputation when it comes to race, and that legacy is etched into our built landscape. For while the city of Boston itself is more diverse than it’s ever been, residential segregation persists within some of its neighborhoods. And many of Boston’s outlying suburbs remain starkly white — and stubbornly resistant to the types of zoning amendments and housing development that could change that.

We asked Soni Gupta, director of neighborhoods and housing at The Boston Foundation, what role zoning reforms, urban planning, and housing development could play in making the Boston area more attractive to people of color.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

Q. The Globe’s Spotlight team found that Black people nationwide view Boston as largely unwelcoming to people of color. There are many, many things we need to change, from individual behaviors to entrenched policies, if we hope to rectify that. But when it comes to housing and zoning, what can we do to make the Boston area a more welcoming, livable, and attractive place for people of color to call home?

A. When I think about what makes a person feel welcome, it’s really seeing people who look like themselves, in all layers of community and work. And that isn’t how the Boston area looks. Even though our region has diversified over time, people of color are still concentrated in a few areas — even in the city, which is now a majority-minority city, there are still pockets of segregation by neighborhood and within neighborhoods.

So if we are to make the area more welcoming and attractive to people of color, it’s our very systems that need to diversify, from the housing stock to zoning bylaws to planning processes and the housing delivery system itself, so that more people of color are participating, making decisions, holding power, and bearing the fruits of more equitable systems.

Andre Perry wrote a book called “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities,’’ and he writes about the benefits of living in a Black-majority city and why people choose to stay. And he says it’s because they feel safe and they don’t have to explain themselves. I think that’s why Black and Latino households of higher income are still likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods. We need all of our communities to be places where Black and brown residents feel safe and don’t have to explain themselves.

With zoning, we have such deep racial segregation and racism built into our very systems that brought us the suburbs that look like they do now. From the time of racial-restricted covenants to redlining and blockbusting in Boston and its neighborhoods, we’ve seen people of color, and Black households in particular, kept from being able to own their homes, both in the city and in the suburbs, and for decades left out of the benefits of homeownership and asset building and the generational benefits they provide — the assets to send your kids to college and to pay for their enrichment when they’re in school. All of the benefits that we know that white households — who benefited from the GI Bill, being able to purchase homes in suburban communities — were then able to pass on to their children.

I think the history of zoning and redlining in our region is such an important one that it needs to be part of our high school curriculum. Because until we know that history, it’s hard to understand why the city looks the way it does and what systems we really need to dismantle in order to make change.

Q. Can you explain the importance of a diverse housing stock — meaning, a mix of options beyond just single-family homes, including rental and multifamily properties and smaller homes at lower price points — in encouraging racial diversity in a community?

A. We know that greater diversity in housing stock — the types of housing, whether it’s rental or homeownership, the levels of affordability, and where it’s located — correlates with a diversity of residents. When we provide these housing stock options, we lay the groundwork for a diverse community and diverse residents.

Q. What are some communities that are doing a better job than most in encouraging racial diversity and equity through housing and zoning policy?

A. The City of Boston, particularly in the last decade or so, has really been trying and has made great strides in what we identified last year as the six best practices for municipalities. Boston met all six of those and has pretty consistently been pushing the envelope in terms of practices that meet racial equity. It has an inclusionary zoning ordinance on the books. It allows for accessory dwelling units, and that just provides more housing and more affordable housing in an existing framework. It includes a diversity of housing stock and all of these other elements.

And just last [month], the BPDA [Boston Planning and Development Agency committed to adopting] the zoning amendment proposed by Councilor [Lydia] Edwards, which requires [the agency] to use a racial equity lens in evaluating larger-scale development projects, and will ensure those developers are thinking about the impacts on existing communities around displacement and affordability.

Somerville has been really progressive in its thinking. Several years ago, it made changes to its inclusionary zoning policy to increase the percentage [of affordable units required in new developments] and to deepen affordability. The mayor and affordable-housing activists there have been, I think, on the leading edge of a lot of thinking around housing.

When you start to get into the suburbs, our outer-lying communities outside of the inner core, we see that they haven’t implemented many of these best practices — and, when it comes to housing production, almost consistently have been able to employ exclusionary zoning practices. So the city of Boston, Cambridge, [and] many of the inner-core communities have been doing more than their fair share of housing production, while other communities are not. The call is really for surrounding communities to do more and to build more affordable housing.

Q. What are some ways exclusionary zoning in the suburbs — and residents’ continued resistance to dense or affordable housing — serves to deepen the broader residential segregation in our region?

A. When these suburbs were created, they had large-lot zoning — each house had to have a minimum of one acre of land. And by default, that excluded people of lower incomes, because the homes were higher priced.

There was actually a study done by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities that looked at attendance of zoning meetings, and it found that public attendance tended to be older, whiter, wealthier, and heavily skewed toward being opposed to new construction of affordable housing. If you think about that, what are people protecting? Well, they’re protecting their communities to be the way they look now — less diverse, less dense, and probably fewer households of lower income.

With COVID-19, it just got me thinking more and more that while a lot of the residents in these suburban communities may have been in white-collar jobs that allow them to work from home, they still had to go pick up groceries and shop at their local pharmacies and grocery stores, and those still have to be staffed by essential workers who were very likely not living in those same communities because they’re lower-paying jobs. They’re relying on these people and households for their own quality of life, but then turning around to close the gates behind them.

When you think about welcoming communities, it’s almost as if the onus of welcoming wouldn’t be on them if they could just stop being exclusionary — if they opened up the communities instead of closing them down. If we were able to create the kind of housing stock that we know correlates with and leads to diversity in residents … that in itself is the welcome mat. That’s the way to invite more people in.

Q. Governor Baker has been trying to pass his ‘Housing Choice’ bill, which would allow cities and towns to approve certain zoning changes with a simple majority vote instead of the two-thirds’ support currently required, for a couple of years. Now he’s attached that long-stalled legislation to a broader economic recovery bill. How could it help if passed?

A. It would lower the voting threshold for certain zoning-related practices, and there are communities where lowering that threshold would have meant that certain affordable-housing developments would have moved forward. The mayor of Salem, Kim Driscoll, has been vocal in her support of Housing Choice, because Salem has actually had hearings on affordable-housing developments that would have had the votes needed if the requirement was just a simple majority.

Q. What would it take to strengthen and expand Boston’s minority middle class?

A. In order to build a thriving Black and brown middle class, first you need to have middle-class incomes. When it comes to higher-paying jobs, they’re still very white, even in nonprofits, so we have to look at our whole economic infrastructure and ecosystem to make sure that we have Black and brown people represented there.

Then we need to have the means for them to build their assets with that income. And that means homeownership and homes priced across the spectrum — not just multimillion-dollar homes, but homes that allow these middle-income Black and brown households to be able to build assets and build wealth through homeownership. We’re very focused on homeownership opportunities — that was the very thing that was taken away from Black households and households of color for the last 100 years, and that’s what we have to make sure we provide access to again.

Q. You work with a number of community leaders, nonprofits, and grass-roots organizations doing incredible work. How can we make sure communities of color hear about programs that could help them gain or keep a foothold in the Boston housing market?

A. MassINC did a survey of 1,500 households across the state, both renters and homeowners, and I was very surprised, and really saddened, to see that something like 30 percent of renters were unaware of the eviction moratorium that’s in place. And that’s such a critical protective piece of information for them to know about. I think more than ever before, this is the argument to make sure that voices of the community and community residents are represented at the decision-making tables, whether it’s through grass-roots organizations or representation in other ways.

Jon Gorey blogs about homes at Send comments to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @jongorey. Subscribe to our free real estate newsletter at

Clarification: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the BPDA’s status on the fair housing zoning amendment.