‘Invisible Walls’ story series focuses on the impact of exclusionary zoning policy

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 Click play to watch the full interview on NH PBS’s The State We’re In.

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For more than six months, partners in the Granite State News Collaborative have been working together on the investigative series Invisible Walls. The ongoing series, which launches next week, examines how exclusionary zoning practices impact New Hampshire’s communities and reinforces inequities while also shining a light on efforts to change these practices and find solutions.

Through data and zoning maps, reporters and editors working on the project were able to show how exclusionary zoning laws have reinforced areas of persistent poverty, impacting many aspects of community life, including crime, public health, affordable housing, and access to economic opportunity. 

The team used Manchester as a case study. However, the same sorts of exclusionary zoning practices present in Manchester are common across the state, and likely have had similarly-broad effects, as later stories in the series will highlight.

The edit team leading the project– Johnny Bassett, data and research editor for the Granite State News Collaborative, Jeff Feingold, editor of New Hampshire Business Review and Matt Mowry, editor of Business New Hampshire magazine- recently spoke with The State We’re In host Melanie Plenda about the project.

This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity. Watch the full interview in the video above.

Melanie Plenda: Johnny, can you talk about the genesis of this project?

Johnny Bassett: We had seen reporters across the country looking back at the historical record to the 1930s when redlining first began and trying to trace that up to the present day to see if redlining actually did have any impacts on the inequalities that we see today. Although we did get access to the redlining maps for Manchester, Manchester is the only city in New Hampshire for which we have the redlining maps. We’ve figured out pretty quickly that redlining did not correlate super well with the inequalities that we do see in the city – namely, that center city is the focus of a lot of the city’s issues with poverty and poor public health and crime; redlining didn’t seem to explain that. We started asking more broadly, going to housing and to public health experts, folks who know Manchester really well, and they kept saying that we should look into zoning. Once we got that consensus from everybody, then we knew where we needed to look.

Melanie Plenda: Can you give us a brief explanation of what redlining is?

Johnny Bassett: Redlining now gets applied to a lot of different practices, anything where institutions are appearing to have racial discrimination or economic discrimination of some kind, but it’s usually racial. Redlining historically related to a specific practice in the 1930s from the Home Owners Loan Commission, and that was a federal agency that went around the country and graded different neighborhoods based on the likelihood that the federal agency would get a return on its investment in that area – specifically, in housing investment. So they asked assessors to go out and grade these neighborhoods using whatever metrics they thought were most appropriate with some guidance and, unfortunately, some of those metrics included racial categorization.

In other cities around the country, we see on the redlining maps that assessors went in and determined a neighborhood is very undesirable, one they wouldn’t get a return on their investment, because there is such a large population of non-white folks, for example, so they would put it in the lowest category. That meant on the maps, it was colored red, and that’s why we call it redlining. The effects of those mapping efforts in the 1930s lasted for generations. 

Melanie Plenda: Matt, turning to you: what impact does zoning and its history have today in Manchester?

Matt Mowry: In New Hampshire, this has been an issue where zoning really dictates where people are able to live, where they can find affordable housing, which leads to where businesses want to locate. There’s a lot of NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard) that goes on when it comes to zoning, so when people hear multifamily units and affordable housing there are some that throw up barriers to this, essentially trying to keep “certain types of people” out of their community when in fact it’s the people that we need in our community. Our essential workers that we have celebrated throughout this pandemic are finding it hard to find places to live within the communities in which they work, so it creates a lot of different issues and inequities and widens those inequity gaps within our communities.

Melanie Plenda: Matt and then Jeff, you both are in contact with many New Hampshire businesses in dire need of workers. You touched on this a little bit before, but how does zoning and housing play into that?

Matt Mowry: We have such a workforce shortage that it is where our economy is growing, but it’s not growing as fast as it could because our businesses can’t find the workers they need, and they can’t find the workers they need because those workers can’t find housing. Restaurants and others that may have lower income pay are finding it harder and harder to find those folks to come in because they can’t find places to live.

Jeff Feingold: This is not just focused on Manchester or Southern New Hampshire, it’s all around the state. There’s a lack of affordable housing, and add to that our transportation issues that we have in the state. People are limited to where they can live and work when you don’t have access to adequate transportation and when you don’t have access to housing that’s affordable, so what you’re doing is setting up pockets of places where, for example, people can work for a manufacturing company that’s desperate to find workers, but the place is a hundred miles away, and there’s no place for them to live in the area where the manufacturing facility is because the only place they can afford to live is something that’s a very long distance away. This is something that you can see over and over again around the state, because there are jobs that are available, but people can’t necessarily find a place to live in the area where the job is.

Melanie Plenda: Johnny, in your story, you noted that the effects of these laws go beyond just housing. You mentioned health being a major effect, as well as poverty and crime. Can you explain that connection and talk us through that?

Johnny Bassett: We think of zoning as the tip of the iceberg. You start talking about how issues are distributed across the city, but then once you have that framework, all of a sudden you see how far the ripples from zoning go. In the context of Manchester, we know that the center city is not just where low-income people tend to live, but it’s also where the city’s most vulnerable residents are. Vulnerable is a word that the Center for Disease Control uses to identify communities that are likely to need a lot of help in the case of a natural emergency or public health emergency. The Manchester Health Department has long known that those living in center city are the ones that have by far the lowest public health measures by a lot of different metrics that they use.

We know that zoning doesn’t directly lead to crime, but zoning concentrates some of the conditions that researchers have shown do correlate strongly with crime. That is largely poverty, but there are several other factors as well. In Manchester, we have data going back for the last 13 years from the Manchester police department, and we can see that that center city has by far the highest crime rates per capita of anywhere in the city. If you subdivide that then by zoning, then you’ll see that the areas that are zoned for multifamily – which allows the most affordable housing – have something like 10 times the per capita crime rate as the parts of the city that are zoned for single-family. We are not saying that there’s a direct causal connection because nobody has been able to agree on what actually causes crime, but what we’re saying is that zoning causes the conditions that researchers do agree generally are correlated with higher crime rates.

Melanie Plenda: Jeff, what are some of the solutions to these zoning problems that the series will explore?

Jeff Feingold: One of the things that we are going to be looking at is something that we’ve covered in New Hampshire Business Review before that’s an ongoing situation, and that’s how some of the wealthier communities in the state have specific zoning rules, like lot requirements and height requirements and density requirements where you can only build one house on a lot of two acres, for example. What that does is it prevents the construction of housing that is more affordable. Developers and builders have been talking about this for many years. There’s been legislation in the legislature, attempts to address this by at least giving incentives to communities to not have these requirements, but there are tougher bills in there trying to–basically saying we don’t want communities to have these requirements anymore, which is a little more difficult to do considering it’s New Hampshire. 

We also have the Housing Appeals Board, which was enacted a year or so ago that helps to streamline the development process. Communities that are trying to restrict these kinds of developments and force developers to go to court, so that streamlines the process to make it faster. The decision can be made without having to be in the court. This Housing Appeals Board will be a cheaper, more effective way of approaching this kind of issue. There are other things as well as we move forward, and I think this series is going to really shine a light on how intractable the zoning issue has been since the beginning. It really has wide-ranging ramifications on the economy of the state.

Melanie Plenda: Matt, what are some of those roadblocks out here? What’s the outlook for progress?

Matt Mowry: Communities are realizing that they have been shutting out people from moving into their communities that they need to have there, but the change has been slow. When it comes to changing regulations and a community outlook, that’s never a fast process. When it comes to zoning, I think one of the impediments is people don’t know enough about zoning. They don’t want to know about zoning. It’s something most people don’t consider an interesting topic, and would rather run away from a zoning board meeting than have to sit through one. Yet it is shaping our communities and the lives of the people in our communities, so I think people are going to have to start building awareness of what zoning actually is, how it impacts your life and your community, and what we can do when we have essentially volunteers running these zoning boards, educating them about the about what the needs in their communities are and how their decisions are affecting that.

The Invisible Walls series will be available beginning next week on collaborativenh.org and through Collaborative partner outlets.

GSNC 2 ColorThese articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.