Northampton residents are tired of thinking inside the housing box
By Brian Zayatz
Discussions of housing, or the lack thereof, have once again made their way to the virtual chambers of Northampton City Council in recent weeks, as they do perennially in a city whose real estate market City Councilor Bill Dwight (At-Large) recently referred to as “white hot.” In December, public commenters expressed frustration with a seemingly paltry allocation of Community Preservation Act funds toward affordable housing, yet as the city’s Conservation and Preservation Planner Sarah Lavalley explained, the city can only allocate these funds when they are applied for by developers, and this was not occurring at the pace that anyone wanted.
In March and April, the Council heard, and ultimately passed, a series of zoning ordinances allowing two-family zoning in all residential zoning districts. These changes removed size restrictions on additional detached dwelling units on a given lot, created more leniency of zoning requirements for developers who wish to build affordable units, and encouraged smaller units.
Many residents, particularly from Bay State Village and Ward 3’s areas surrounding downtown, spoke out in particular against the new rules for detached dwellings, while a number of other residents spoke in favor of the changes, arguing that the affordability crisis in Northampton demands the creation of more units. Opponents of the change argued they represented a handout to developers and would not lead to greater affordability.
“The developmental logic is essentially a capitalist logic,” said Osman Keshawarz, a Ph.D candidate in Economics at UMass and Northampton resident who spoke to me about the new zoning ordinances. “The anti-development logic is also a capitalist logic—it is designed to preserve value.” Keshawarz explained that upzoning, or amending laws to allow more units on a piece of land, increases the ability of that land to capture rents. At this point, market forces exert pressure on landowners and developers to develop the land to the fullest extent possible.
Keshawarz pointed to Reagan-era “trickle-down” economics, in which gains in productivity were increasingly funnelled upwards to the owner class while wages stagnated, as a major reason that homes are now seen not only as a place to live, but an investment by which a homeowner must build wealth in order to have a shot at a decent life. “[A home] generates a return by being in a place where other people want to live,” he explained, but such value could be threatened by upzoning and greater density.
With regards to the debate between upzoning or not, Keshawarz described it as “an attempt to leverage the state to come down on one side or the other. In both cases, somebody loses:” either homeowners or prospective homeowners, “and in all of those cases, renters lose,” in that any housing stock added would likely be catered to those who would pay the most for it. “The way to bring it together,” Keshawarz concluded, is to ask: “is there a way of breaking free of the capitalist logic?” Or, as Dorrie Brooks, an architect from Bay State Village, put it in an email, “We are at the point where we either go all ‘Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome,’ or we start to get creative and find ways to rethink not just land use and financing but also the sacred cow of private property itself.”
Most of the efforts to address housing costs that come before City Council come down to incentivizing developers to provide a public good. While groups like the Central Valley Tenants Union and Springfield No One Leaves work directly on building power for tenants and homeowners against landlords and banks, other ideas for reigning in runaway housing costs and creating more equity in housing by engaging the city itself abound.
The ordinance is coming from inside the house
In a recently published report reviewing the city’s ordinances, which the city undertakes every five years and in its current iteration added a social justice and equity lens, resident Tay Porco’s name appears numerous times in a section titled “Ordinances Impacting Historically Marginalized Communities Not Recommended for Adoption.” Porco, an organizer with the local housing advocacy collective Touch the Sky, advocated for the implementation of five out of seven of the ordinances that made this section, four of which had to do with housing.
For each proposed ordinance, the Ordinance Review Committee explained the reasons why they did not recommend its adoption. For an ordinance legalizing temporary structures on public land, like tents, Councilor Jim Nash (Ward 3) reported that he did not find any ordinance banning such structures except on conservation land. For another banning landlords from conducting criminal background checks, City Solicitor Alan Seewald cited a recently passed state law explicitly giving landlords permission to do so. Another ordinance would have banned the sale of properties gifted to the city with the expectation they be used for affordable housing, which Seewald explained the city typically does not do and that city buildings for sale do not meet sanitary code and other requirements for housing. Porco also urged the committee to recommend an ordinance that would disincentivize vacant units, which Seewald said he could not weigh in on without a more specific proposal, and the committee chose not to pursue.
Two of the recent zoning ordinances were chosen for recommendation by the committee. In their respective blurbs, Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden is named as their advocate. While Director Feiden certainly has a good deal of knowledge of what the city is allowed to do by ordinance, the committee seemed bounded by a deference for the conventional and expert views at the expense of those with lived experience of the matters in question (reminiscent of the creation of the Policing Review Commission). Member Megan Paik expressed frustration at the City Solicitor’s influence over the committee’s work, while Porco’s suggestions seemed to have been met with little interest in creatively addressing issues identified by impacted residents as significant barriers to housing. Porco could not be reached for comment by press time.
Meanwhile, resident Jackie Ballance suggested new criteria for determining a development’s fitness for the city, and capping the size of new units. These ideas were also not adopted for recommendation, but the committee thanked Ballance in their report “for her thoughtful proposals and her commitment to the important issue of fairness and equity in housing in our City.” No such thanks were extended to Porco.
Housing Partnership recommends banning broker fees
Northampton Housing Partnership member Hannah Shaffer recently wrote an opinion piece for The Shoestring calling for a ban on broker fees, which agencies like Rent Noho collect from tenants for services that only benefit landlords. Shaffer spoke to The Shoestring for this article to provide more background on the effort.
Shaffer joined the Housing Partnership, an advisory board to the mayor, last year after wanting to get more involved in local housing activism. “I personally was just trying to think of what the lowest hanging fruit would be,” she said of the broker fee ban. “Rent Noho provides a great service to landlords, and it just seemed kind of absurd that the tenants were paying for it.” Broker fees had also been identified in a study by the city as one of the most commonly cited barriers to housing access.
“Eventually what the mayor suggested was to approach this as a home rule petition,” Shaffer explained. “The process for that is basically drafting up some language that gets approved by the City Solicitor, who writes it in more formal language, and then it gets sent to the [Massachusetts] House of Representatives.” Shaffer later added that the mayor and City Council must both approve of the petition before sending it to the state legislature, but so far there has been no indication of when this might occur
According to Shaffer, both State Representative Lindsay Sabadosa and State Senator Jo Comerford have been supportive of the idea, and have made its passage at the state level sound like all but a sure thing. “I’m skeptical of that,” Shaffer said, citing a similar law in New York City that has been tied up at the state level due to opposition from the real estate sector.
Though the Housing Partnership cannot legislate, Shaffer described their role as “keeping a pulse on what’s happening with affordable housing in the area,” such as making sure the city meets its minimum affordability rates, identifying new locations for affordable housing, and keeping watch if builders back out of affordable developments. The group is also working to create a “housing navigator” position in the city, who would be available to help residents navigate the confusing maze of aid that is available for tenants and homeowners.
Shaffer concluded that the Housing Partnership “could be helped by having more public presence at the meetings.” With many of those serving on the Partnership being homeowners themselves, she added that “renter representation is really needed.”
Landlord registry and direct aid
Robert Eastman, who frequently attends City Council representing Northampton Abolition Now, a police abolitionist group, spoke in favor of the zoning changes that will allow for increased density in most residential areas during public comment on March 18th. Eastman said at the time he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to afford a house in the city where he grew up.
“I grew up in the same house that my mom grew up in,” Eastman told me. “Recently one of my sisters, also a single mom, was renting in Northampton and the house was sold, and she had to move out and find housing in a hurry. It was nearly impossible.” Eastman explained that “the zoning changes that just happened would make it a lot more possible to build a small home or detached unit in the backyard where my mom lives.”
When we spoke, I told Eastman that I wanted to give him more than the three minutes allotted at City Council to share his thoughts on housing in the city. One idea that animated him was a rental registry.
“I’ve been browsing through some of the planning documents that Northampton has done over the years about housing in the city, dating back to the mid 2000s,” Eastman said, “and I was pretty shocked to see that the city really doesn’t have data on the true cost of rent or what landlords are spending on their rental properties.” He cited one study during Claire Higgins’s mayorship that listed prices they were seeing on Craigslist.
A rental registry, Eastman explained, is a low cost way for cities to collect data on their housing stock while adding vastly more transparency and accountability for landlords who attempt illegal rent hikes or evictions. The idea was detailed in a December article on Shelterforce, written by urban planner Shane Phillips, who explains that while most of the cities that have rental registries use them primarily for building code enforcement, they could easily be used to collect data on rent prices and hikes, evictions, vacancies, and maintenance costs. Statutes could easily be put in place whereby landlords who fail to accurately list rent hikes or evictions (which often take place illegally) on the registry would be subjected to steep penalties.
Eastman also wanted to speak about a demand of Northampton Abolition Now for direct payments to city residents in need. “If you ask City Council, they’ll tell you it’s impossible because of state law,” Eastman said, even though “research overwhelmingly shows that this has the greatest success rate in getting people housed.” NAN advocates for using the Arts Council’s emergency grants for artists early in the pandemic as a model, and suggests that such a program could be housed under the Department of Community Care, the creation of which is supported by both NAN and the Policing Review Commission. (The PRC expresses support for a “housing first approach to houselessness, but does not explicitly endorse unrestricted cash grants. The Arts Council was able to get around laws preventing such grants because they are not entirely publicly funded). Eastman acknowledged that “there is lots of financial assistance out there,” but cited his own experience applying for rental assistance, for which the application process took him a week and the waiting period was six to eight weeks, as evidence of its inaccessibility.
“We need to try some different things,” Eastman said, “I don’t think there’s necessarily one solution.” He also indicated that he would support further upzoning and density, a vacancy tax, and assistance to renters for purchasing their current residence if their landlord decides to sell.
Community land trusts: thinking outside the market
In conducting interviews for this article, community land trusts (CLTs) were mentioned by Eastman, Brooks (the architect), and Francisco Perez, another UMass Ph.D candidate in economics (and Northampton resident). The basic idea, as Brooks explained to me, is that a non-profit or public trust, managed by a board of directors, owns and manages a swath of land on which residents can buy houses for a reduced price because the trust retains ownership of the land underneath it. The trust’s board might be made up exclusively of residents, or include other stakeholders from the community, such as elected officials or housing advocates. Residents get to purchase a home at a cost significantly lower than the area market value and may build some equity on the structure, but the house is primarily a place to live and not an investment, as Keshawarz described above. CLTs will often place stipulations on how much a house on its land can be resold for.
“CLTs are most successful in hot housing markets which is how we would describe Northampton today where there are 20 buyers for every house on the market,” Brooks told me. She continued: “We can’t expect 40B projects [a state law similar to the recent Northampton ordinance, whereby the state allows developers to bend local zoning rules to create affordable units] and tax credit financing to produce all the affordable housing we need. Nor does it produce housing diversity. Most 40B projects are incredibly complex, burdensome efforts resulting in too few units of housing to meet our needs, and the market is frankly not producing housing fast enough to replace what we are losing [due to age and condition]. In fact, a lot of our affordable housing policies are so entwined with tax credit programs that one can’t help but wonder if the Commonwealth’s motivation is in creating housing or creating tax breaks. There just is not enough sustained investment to produce the number of units we need.”
Perez also spoke frankly about the limits of the state’s preferred approaches. “What really matters is ownership and control,” he said. “Forget your subsidies and affordable housing programs. Who owns the building?… Anything that you build that is built by and for developers, it’s like, don’t even bother.”
For Perez, better solutions lie in taking land “permanently and completely” off the market, as in a CLT. A New Yorker, Perez grew up in a limited equity coop in Manhattan in which his mother is still a shareholder. Their three bedroom apartment could only be sold for a fraction of the price of those in their neighborhood, which now routinely sell in the seven figures. “What you give up is the ability to sell that apartment for millions, but what you get is quality affordable housing,” he said. “We’ve been there for forty years and we’ll be there for forty more.”
Practically, Perez said the city of Northampton could either take out a loan to start buying up properties for a CLT, or guarantee a private loan, stepping in only if residents became unable to pay. (Asked if residents of Bay State Village could create a CLT to better guarantee the long term affordability of their neighborhood, Perez answered in the positive and said the two biggest questions would be whether current homeowners would be willing to sell at a price affordable to the CLT and who would get have a say in its management). He said the idea was not entirely far-fetched, and pointed to Singapore, where the government owns the vast majority of the land and sells long term leases. “Singapore is one of the wealthiest, most advanced capitalist cities in the world,” said Perez, “it’s not like this is gonna destroy Northampton.” Even having 5% of the city’s housing stock in CLTs would start to create serious low-cost competition that would drive market-rate prices down.
Northampton Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden said via email that the “brilliance” of CLTs is in enforcing long term affordability, “but they don’t lower the initial cost of creating affordable units since the land still has to be acquired.” Feiden shared some local history regarding the Northampton Area Community Land Trust, which he said he helped make purchases via Community Development Block Grant and back taxes as his first affordable housing project as a city employee. Ultimately, the CLT did not last, which Feiden says is because it did not reach an economy of scale to support staff or other overhead costs, but the affordable units it created remain so to this day. Feiden also said he thought the recently passed ordinance allowing for greater density for affordable units could make CLTs more viable in Northampton.
When it comes to the debates over density and infill that inspired this article, Perez rejected the terms. “It becomes, are you pro-development or not? If the choice is between development that fuels more gentrification or doing nothing, people end up being like, I just don’t want any more housing in Northampton.” Speaking specifically to the recent market-rate developments that have caused such a stir, Perez concluded that “people are right to oppose what’s there. But they don’t know there are alternatives they could be pushing for.”
Brian Zayatz is a regular contributor and new staff writer at The Shoestring.