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"Exclusionary Zoning Leaves People Out," Housing Assistance Corporation Director Calls for Change

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Liz Lerner
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Alisa Magnotta would like to look strategically at the land on Cape Cod so that working people, people of color, middle income earners, and the year-round population can live here.

Zoning laws have long helped protect the Cape's natural resources and beauty. 

But zoning laws have also been used to encourage, and enforce, racial segregation in the U.S.

Alisa Magnotta, Executive Director of the Housing Assistance Corporation in Hyannis recently wrote about this in an opinion piece in the Cape Cod Times.

WCAI's Kathryn Eident talked with her about it, and about her suggestions for how people can push for change.

Eident Talk about what prompted you to write that piece and what you're hoping readers will take out of that.

Magnotta To me, the marches and the protests are a direct result of the seeds of racism and oppression that we've been watering in our country for years. And, the pandemic really highlighted the structural disparities based on white preference policies that have existed, for generations.

So, when the best protection for COVID is the quarantine at home, we can see really quickly how you don't have enough money to pay your rent, or the right kind of job to work from home, that we start seeing those structural disparities and racism very quickly.

And so, I felt like it was time to link what we were experiencing, and what we were seeing with what we had known in housing policy for years. And that's exclusionary zoning that left people out. And that's just one of the issues that gives rise to the voices that we're hearing.

Eident If listeners are thinking that racism isn't here. Talk about what you see.

Magnotta The Cape is unique. We are 92% Caucasian. So, it's hard for us at times to make the link that something that we're doing or something that we just casually accepted, like our our zoning regulations, actually perpetuate racism. And, we're based on policies to keep black people out of neighborhoods. So, what we see is the socio-economically disadvantaged; people who are trying to live and work here can't afford to live here. And, there's only so much land that we have to build on.  We have a limited supply with a high desire for people to want to be here. So, the prices are out of reach.

You need to make basically $100,000 a year to buy a home here. That leaves out many of the year rounders. And that definitely leaves out the average median income for a black or brown family in our country, let alone in our region. The average median income for a black family in the United States is around $50,000. Latinos are $60,000.

We have an opportunity to be leaders here. We have an opportunity to do things differently and to be more hospitable and to be more inclusive. It's also for all of us to build a Cape Cod that represents our values and who we are.

Eident And also isn't a barrier to people of color from coming here, living here, and thriving here the way their white counterparts can.

Magnotta Or, maybe would have stayed, you know, and not have had to leave the region. Our Wampanoag Nation that's here. Perhaps if we had had different zoning policies and housing policies, we could have honored the Wampanoag Nation and kept them in our region longer and more of them. You know, I hear stories of families that have to relocate and move off Cape because it's just too expensive to live here and too expensive to raise their family.

Eident And, you do offer some suggestions. What could people start to think about in terms of changing zoning that it might be more inclusive?

Magnotta Zoning helps create order in communities, right? It was designed partly to keep farmland away from housing, industrial areas away from housing. And for the Cape, it was created to protect our waterways. So, there are some legitimate rationale to having one house per lot. But the unintended consequences of that, is not having enough land and needing more housing. So, can we find ways in the appropriate areas to allow two, three, four homes on one lot? That would mean that a buyer could pay less because the cost of construction would be less, would be spread out among those units. So, it's trying to look strategically and realistically at the land that we have so that working people, people of color, middle income earners, our year -round population can live here.

Eident It makes me think in listening to you now that it may require Cape Codders to maybe think a little differently about what they think the Cape is as far as a community and what it means to share lived space.

Magnotta Yeah. And the casual acceptance, I'm borrowing this phrase from a woman that's an attorney in Chicago, and I just loved it because it really resonated for me. We inherited these zoning regulations, but the fact is they were created to keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods. And just our casual acceptance of these policies perpetuates systemic racism. They perpetuate the structural inequities that keep poor, black, uneducated—anyone struggling to maintain stable housing. And, it's unacceptable. Now that we know where it originated and, now we know the generational impact, we can do better and we should do better.

Eident You encourage people to still protest, but to stay active. What can they do?

Magnotta Yeah, they can try to get on their planning board, run for select board, get on nonprofit boards where you're in, again, decision making positions. We need leadership that is going to give voice to these concerns and be able to work the system and the process to make incremental change. When there's a housing project up for vote or on your planning board, go and advocate yes for housing.

You need a scalpel. You know, it needs to be dissected. And it's very careful work. And we do have to keep in mind our environment. You know, we wouldn't want to create another problem down the road. And I know it's hard and it takes time.

Yes, go to the streets because we have to first address police brutality, because when people feel safe and that the system that was designed to protect them is actually working, then we can start getting into housing and education reform and these systemic issues that are going to make lasting generational changes.

Eident Alisa Magnotta, Executive Director of the Housing Assistance Corporation in Hyannis, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk to us.

Thank you so much.

Kathryn Eident is an award-winning journalist and hosts WCAI's Morning Edition. She began producing stories for WCAI in 2008 as a Boston University graduate student reporting from the Statehouse. Since then, Kathryn’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times, Studio 360, Scientific American, and Cape and Plymouth Business Magazine.