Public Input Often Influences Housing Policy, but Whose Voices Rise to the Top?

Public Input Often Influences Housing Policy, but Whose Voices Rise to the Top?
Katherine Levine Einstein, Maxwell Palmer, David M. Glick
Perspectives on Politics
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Neighborhood activism and resident participation in local meetings critically shapes local policymaking. Many believe such civic engagement ensures policies are rooted in the values, ideas, and lived experiences of the communities they affect. But others argue that the format only amplifies the voices of community members who have the resources and access to be civically engaged. Housing development policies provide a timely subject through which to explore how representative participation in local meetings really is, as communities across the United States grapple with limited housing supply, affordability challenges, and growing opposition to new development. This study analyzed meeting minutes and administrative data from 97 Massachusetts cities and towns to understand whether meeting participants and their opinions were demographically representative of their broader communities.

To conduct the study, researchers created a novel dataset that cataloged all people who participated in planning and zoning meetings focused on the construction of multiple housing units across the Greater Boston region from 2015 to 2017. The data captured participants’ names, addresses, whether they supported proposed development, and, when available, the reasoning behind their expressed opinion. Researchers then analyzed participants’ demographic characteristics—including age, gender, partisanship, and voting history—by matching 2,580 of the 3,123 participants to their corresponding data from the Massachusetts voter file. Because the voter file data does not capture housing tenure, researchers used data from the town of Arlington (selected for its large sample size, deed records that matched participants with their housing status, and mix of owners and renters) as a case study to assess the difference in participation rates between homeowners and renters. The study also compared meeting participants’ opinions with the views of the broader public by analyzing a vote on a 2010 statewide housing ballot referendum to repeal a law promoting affordable housing development. Researchers then surveyed a group of 125 mayors from cities with populations of 75,000 to understand the implications of the research beyond the Greater Boston region. In a forthcoming Cambridge University Press book, Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis, the authors expand upon these analyses to document disparities in race and homeownership status using a race-name matching algorithm and detailed data on property records.

Key findings from the study

  • On average, meeting participants were older, had lived at their residences longer, and were more likely to be men than those who lived in their towns but did not participate.
  • Meeting participants voted roughly twice as often as nonparticipants.
  • Sixty-three percent of comments opposed the proposed housing projects, 14.6 percent expressed support, and 22.8 percent were neutral. Women, infrequent voters, and participants who attended multiple meetings were most likely to speak out in opposition.
  • Supporters of new housing were significantly more likely to mention affordability concerns, while opponents of new housing were more likely to raise traffic, environmental, flooding, and safety concerns.
  • Democrats, Republicans, and independent or unaffiliated voters participated in local meetings at similar rates. Democrats were more likely to support projects and less likely to be neutral toward or oppose projects, compared with independent and Republican participants. That said, overall support for new housing projects remained low among affiliates of both major parties—only 19.4 percent of Democrats and 12.8 percent of Republicans expressed support for proposed projects at public meetings.
  • In Arlington, significantly more homeowners than renters participated in meetings (39 percent of Arlington residents were renters, but only 22 percent of meeting participants were renters).
  • Across cities, 56 percent of voters adopted the pro–affordable housing position in a 2010 Massachusetts ballot referendum. The pro–affordable housing position also attracted majority support in 61 towns. This share is higher than the 15 percent of meeting commenters who expressed support for the construction of new housing within these same towns.
  • Sixty percent of the mayors surveyed for this study believed that a “small group with strong views” had a greater influence on housing policy than the “majority public opinion.”

Expanded findings from the forthcoming book

  • White residents and homeowners were substantially more likely to oppose the construction of new housing.
  • White people are substantially more likely to participate in meetings; they are 86.7 percent of voters but make up 95 percent of commenters in these 97 cities and towns. Latinx people, in contrast, compose 8 percent of voters but only 1 percent of commenters.
  • Disparities in homeownership mirror those found in Arlington. Homeowners are more than 25 percentage points more likely to participate in land-use meetings. They compose 45.6 percent of voters but 73.4 percent of meeting participants.

Policy implications

  • An unrepresentative group of residents disproportionately participate in public meetings concerning housing development. As such, local government leaders should assess who participates at local meetings, consider how much influence these voices should have in development of housing policy, and take proactive steps to engage residents who are less likely to attend and participate in the discussion.
  • The authors note that local governments should consider the best points at which to incorporate neighborhood input. The concentrated costs and diffuse benefits of new construction mean that land-use meetings surrounding new housing will likely always disproportionately attract opponents, even in the most inclusive settings. They believe that allowing more construction by right—while incorporating the community in the design of land-use regulations—might mitigate the depressive impact of neighborhood residents on housing supply.

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