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Affordability of living in Northampton

I’ve lived in Northampton for 20 years.  Thirteen years ago, I bought a two-family house in Florence with three other people.

We couldn’t afford to buy here without going in on it together, but doing that made it much easier to afford and maintain. If there is a problem, we have four people to think about it together. We live right on the bike path, and together we built a bench and welcomed people to come sit on it, repair their bikes, make a free phone call and lots of other projects that our collective energy made possible.

We were talking recently about that decision, which we entered into with some trepidation, being unsure how it would really play out. We all agreed it was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made, for affordability and for community.

Since I’ve moved here, rents and housing costs have just about doubled, compared to inflation of one and a half times.  My current housemates, who we charge rent to based only on what our expenses are rather than market rate, would pay double the rent they pay to us if they move elsewhere in Northampton.

Many of my friends and people I talk to can’t afford to rent or buy here anymore. Many of the fellow worker-owners of my business, Pedal People, choose or have to live in Greenfield or Holyoke and commute in.

There’s great work being done in this area. The Habitat for Humanity housing and the new buildings on Pleasant Street are good, but it’s not enough.

Until we solve the global wealth and income disparity problem, here are some ideas of what we could do locally to change this situation. Some of these ideas are not currently legal under state law, but the Northampton City Council could pass resolutions and we can lobby state lawmakers to change these laws.

Legal structures

  • Encourage the development of Community Land Trusts.  These allow a person to own their own home, but a non-profit trust owns the land under their house and leases it to them for 99 years.  If the owner wishes to sell, the trust has the option to buy based on a formula that factors in the time they’ve spent there and work they’ve done to improve the property, preserving affordability and preventing speculation.  The Champlain Housing Trust in Burlington, Vermont is a very successful Community Land Trust with 2,200 apartments and 565 owner-occupied homes.
  • Encourage the creation of  limited equity housing cooperatives, where residents own their unit and make decisions together, gain equity in the property, while the structure keeps the price affordable for the next residents.


  • Tax vacation and second homes and extremely large homes at a higher rate, and pass on the savings to everyone else.
  • Tax out-of-state corporations at a higher rate.
  • Expand the property tax work-off program to people with low income and total assets, in addition to seniors and veterans.
  • Give tax breaks based on income and total assets.


  • The population of Northampton is about the same as it was in 1950, yet many more housing units have been built since then as people have larger houses and live with fewer people.  Work to reverse that trend by encouraging people to share their homes, which will effectively increase the housing stock.  This brings in extra income, builds community and can provide companionship and assistance for older or disabled residents.  Provide training in how to live cooperatively and sample agreements for sharing homes.
  • Remove the limit on no more than four unrelated people living together.


  • Create a program where property owners pledge to rent their properties based on their expenses (including their labor), not on the market price.  People with money to give back could charge less than their expenses.  This could be similar to the PACE car program where people pledge to drive the speed limit.  Let’s make it cool to charge lower rents: “I’m renting my house for $300 below market.” says one person, and another would say “Well, I’m doing $350 below market!”  There are tax laws that require property owners to charge market rate, or they risk their deductions being disqualified.  Those laws need to change.
  • Consider rent regulations that restrict the rate at which rents may rise.


  • Allow mobile homes, trailer parks and tiny homes in Northampton.

Transportation equity: walking

I’ve been walking the sidewalks of Northampton, Mass. lately, and with the recent snow and ice storms it’s been a rough ride.  Northampton’s sidewalk clearing laws stipulate that property owners must clear or treat the entire width of the sidewalk within 24 hours of the end of a storm, and keep it clear or treated after that.

Let’s imagine an alternate history where after a storm, each property owner was required to clear the entire road in front of their house, and they had 24 hours to do so, but the sidewalks were cleared by trained professionals.  Obviously a disaster, but the current (opposite) situation is unfair and difficult for sidewalk users.

We shouldn’t have to wait 24+ hours to have safe passage, and the inconsistency and lack of enforcement of each property owner’s obligation to keep it clear makes the dangerous even after that.

What’s impacts does the current policy have?

  • There’s a disproportionate impact to people with less money and can’t afford a car, and to people for whom it’s unsafe to drive, such as undocumented people.
  • Wheelchair users end up riding in the street, using a private vehicle if they have one, or rely on van services, which are usually funded by tax dollars.  Wheelchair users do use the rail trails that are plowed in the winter.
  • Public transportation access is limited.  Most bus stops are not right at someone’s house and their destination is also not right at a bus stop.
  • Those with a car use it more, which has environmental impacts but also health impacts as people don’t get as much regular exercise.  Children are driven to school instead of walking.

The City of Northampton has a complete streets plan.  I couldn’t find mention of keeping the sidewalks clear of snow & ice, so I decided to research how other cities manage.

  • Burlington, Vermont plows all their sidewalks with small plows, concurrently with street plowing during the day and at night in time for schools to open.
  • Amherst, Mass. has a sidewalk plowing route for major sidewalks and prioritizes sidewalks that facilitate students walking to school.  After the initial plowing route is done, residents are required to maintain the sidewalk in a passable condition

As a step towards treating sidewalk plowing as we do street plowing, I would like to see us move towards a system similar to Amherst’s, where the city assists residents by plowing the sidewalks during a storm on major thoroughfares (which are especially dangerous to walk in the street), and then property owners must maintain them after that.

Let’s make it so all of us, regardless of how we choose to get around (walking, biking, public transit, driving), have equal access to transportation.

The Florence Electric Vehicle Co-op

Imagine having access to the most appropriate travel option whenever you need it, and all of the options using the cleanest energy possible.  Foot, bicycle, electric bicycle, electric city buspedal electric vehicle, or a full size electric car when all the other options won’t do.

One of the problems with owning your own car is that there’s a great incentive to use it more.  In general, the more you use it, the lower the per-mile costs, because driving more doesn’t affect the cost of the car or the insurance in most situations.  Unless you drive a lot, not owning a car but having access to one when you need it is usually cheaper and uses less energy.

So – let’s create a cooperative where we can rent by the hour or day the electric vehicle that’s most appropriate for our needs!

I propose we start with a regular electric bike, and a PEBL, a pedal electric vehicle made locally.

Cars are complicated, with insurance and licensing to worry about. Once we get a handle on the costs and logistics, perhaps we can get used electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, which are about $10,000 these days.

Want to join me?  Let’s create a cooperative structure and crowdfunding plan – drop me a line!

An experiment in welcoming

For almost twelve years, my house has hosted a weekly potluck on Monday nights. We’ve hosted it every Monday night, without fail, even if it falls on a holiday. Some nights we’ve put a pot of food on the counter and a note on the door, but it’s always happened. The other night I gave this talk to the people who showed up this week:

“You’re part of a movement in creating accepting spaces. It’s not perfect, but we have the intention of welcoming everyone who comes to this space. There are enough of us who live here that some of us can step back and take a break when it becomes too much.  There were a few years there where I had to go hide out in my room, and it was important that I gave myself permission to do that, so that when I came back downstairs I could really be present for people.

Many of us are uncomfortable around difference, and it takes work to build skills in acceptance and not rush it.  There’s a fear of being stuck talking to a person, and part of the skill is learning how to leave when it becomes too much.  Part is in being straightforward when a person does something that doesn’t work, making room for their feelings, and making it clear that they are still welcome.  We haven’t had to ask people to leave very often, but if we do, it’s always with a clear option of how they could return (not drinking alcohol, alternating attending with another person who is uncomfortable with them, etc.)

I like to find ways to engage that meet the person where they are at.  With children, I like to follow their lead and drop my adult preconceptions about how we should play.  Music has been a great way to connect, and I’ll try to learn songs to sing with people, regardless of their ability to hold a tune!  And it’s okay to disappoint people by stepping back when you need a break.

How can you create more accepting spaces in your life? Would it be a regular event?  Don’t try to take on too much at once: I wouldn’t start a weekly event unless you have a bunch of other people to take turns with you.  Or would it be just reaching out to someone with the trust that their presence in your life would give something back to you if you work to build that relationship?”

Pioneer Valley Public Transit Hikes – #3: Mt. Tom Range

I’ve started a new series of hikes using public transportation leaving from Northampton, Massachusetts. Our third hike will be Saturday, April 15, 2017 – details below. You can also follow the series on the PVPTH Facebook page.

Mt. Tom Range from Rt. 141 to Rt. 5

Mt. Tom range from the Oxbow
Mt. Tom range from the Oxbow
  • Difficulty: Hard – steep climbs, long distance.
  • Distance: 6.5 miles.
  • Transit: PVTA R41 (schedule , map) & B48 (schedule, map) from the Academy of Music, 274 Main St, Northampton, MA 01060,  $1.25 each way.

Meet Saturday 4/15/17 to catch the 10 a.m. bus at the Academy of Music – we’ll take the R41 bus through Easthampton and get off on Rt. 141 at the top of the hill just after passing into Holyoke.  We’ll hike north on the New England/M&M Trail, up over Mt. Tom and along the ridge, heading down after Mt. Nonotuck to East St and then Route 5.  We’ll catch the B48 bus back into Northampton by late afternoon.

If you’re coming from Williamsburg, Leeds or Florence, you can catch the R42 bus which becomes the R41 at the Academy of Music.

A Camp Co-op

I’ve got a handful of possible co-op projects in the works right now: a housing co-op, a community investment co-op, a bike shop conversion and a camp co-op.


One of my favorite places to visit is Monroe State Forest.  There are shelters, old growth forest, and Dunbar Brook has pools and waterfalls, surrounded by fern covered boulders.  I would love to have a wild place close to home to visit and camp with friends, but purchasing land on my own would be too difficult.  And of course I like to sharett. So why not go in on it?

The Camp Co-op is a wild space shared by 10 to 15 households.  Ideally it would be in a forest by water – a river, stream or lake.  We would purchase the land together and decide together how it would be used and cared for.

Here are some goals and ideas I have:

  • Members could sign up for exclusive use times and there would be many shared use times.
  • Within biking and bus distance of Northampton, Mass.
  • Non-buildable land, so that it’s affordable and minimally taxed
  • Ideally no road access, just a foot and bicycle right-of-way. No motor vehicle use.
  • Zoned so that we could build a tent platform or 3-sided or open sided shelter.  We could also erect a canvas tent for the winter with a portable wood stove.
  • We’d have a forest management plan which would include a focus on growing acorn, nut and fruit trees, and would use wood from the site for campfires.  We wouldn’t export wood, unless we are able to purchase more acres than needed for the camp.
  • A safe and respectful space, for each other and for the land.
  • An annual membership fee would cover the taxes and accounting, and minimal supplies.
  • The price and number of shares would be set so we could buy the land with cash, and low enough to be affordable for many.  We could loan money so that some people could pay in installments.  If feasible, share price would be based on ability to pay.

And some questions:

  • How would we govern ourselves? Consensus or majority? Collective or board?
  • Drug and alcohol use policies?
  • Long term camping?
  • What’s the impact of many people on the space? Would we rotate through different parts of the land to allow it to recover?
  • If the share price is originally dependent on the land price, how would that change if someone wants to sell their share?  Would it be the same price, adjusted for inflation, or adjusted for the land value (the market)?

Want to join me?

What do I want?

This past weekend I went on a two day walking and camping journey, never leaving the city of Northampton, but feeling miles away.

I started with one destination in mind, about an hour’s walk:

2016-08-06 17.38.42After crossing an abandoned beaver dam, I ate lunch and took a nap under mosquito netting.  I had purposefully not set a goal beyond the first stop.  I could stay where I was and do nothing, explored the area or continuing walking for the rest of the day.  So I asked myself, what do I want to do?  And nothing came back.  I didn’t know.  It was painful to sit there and second guess my desires, and just not feeling like doing anything, but know that that was doing something anyway.

Finally I decided to stash my pack and follow the deer trails.  I got turned around a couple of times, found a great spot to camp, and found myself observing more, less concerned with what to do and just doing it.

I found a beautiful spot to set up a hammock on top of a boulder, strung up between two trees that I had to climb high up in to secure the ropes!

2016-08-06 18.15.10I left the next morning more able to pay attention to the forest and follow my interests.  On the walk back I stopped in unannounced on two friends and reconnected!

Hudson Valley walk 2016

2015-04-23 15.46.01
The text reads: “To the Town of Shelburne, during dry season 1929, Perini & Amrollini”.  Found along the road on last year’s walk.

On May 13th my yearly walking journey begins in Albany, New York at the Albany 2016 – Break Free From Fossil Fuels, an action to block fossil fuel trains and fight for climate justice.  From there I’ll head south toward New York City, on foot and by train, arriving in Brooklyn on May 21st.

On last year’s walk (Walking journey 2015), I walked to Vermont and back from Northampton, staying with friends and new-found friends, recording a radio show and listening and sharing stories.  I was surprised how many people were inspired by my journey, even though I had no goal other than to enjoy the world and the people I met.

This year I will be adding to that goal, and asking people their thoughts and feelings about climate change as I walk, trying to better understand what’s needed to move the movement forward, helping people come to terms with their feelings and help them find a place to take action that’s not coming from a place of guilt or coercion.  I’ll share what I find out with you in radio or video form.

I won’t be carrying camping gear so I’ll be staying with people.  I’ve found hosts for each night.  I’ll be passing through Hudson, Germantown, Saugerties, Woodstock, Bearsville, High Falls, New Paltz, Marlboro and Beacon.  Know anyone I should meet?  Or would you like to walk with me for a day? Please be in touch!

Valley Cooperative House Network

IMG_5668My friends and I are starting the Valley Cooperative House Network. It’s an on-going dream of connecting people and cooperative homes in the Connecticut River valley of western Massachusetts. We envision three phases of cooperation:

Community building: How many cooperative houses are there, and what do they share?  Let’s network and share events and openings in our houses.

Collective economies: Buying food together, storing food (canning, root cellar, freezers), car sharing, tool sharing…

Building equity: Creating cooperatively owned land and houses.

More information on the VCHN website.

Sharing, busyness and non-traditional family

Walking through Conway, Mass.

UPDATE: The talk is available as a podcast on the Out There radio show.

I gave a free talk at the Forbes Library  on Saturday, February 6 at 1 pm in the community room.  I spoke about sharing and learning the skills of cooperation, reforming the culture of busyness and creating non-traditional family.

I’ve been living cooperatively in a cooperatively-owned house for the past 10 years, and gotten tremendous benefit from that, both economically and socially.  It’s also been a challenge to learn how to get along with each other.  Bringing up the difficulties before they build to a place of resentment, openly talking about feelings and hashing out the details are skills that I’ve learned and am still working on.

I’ve been spending time every week for the past three years with my adopted niece who is now 5 years old.  Together we’ve created videos, gone biking, hiking and on public transit adventures, and this past summer we’ve been building a house on a bike trailer to travel to Antarctica with.  It’s been about following her lead, and finding the places where I have interest too.  I feel very much adopted in her family and all of us support each other – having dinner together, saving thousands of dollars in child care costs, and filling my need for connection with children.

And I’ll talk about making space in my life, through sharing and cutting expenses, and through meeting my needs in multiple ways at once.  Some are: biking for transportation and exercise, cutting wood by hand with a two-person saw and talking the whole time, taking the time to walk places to help me think and to see so much more than I would see traveling faster.

I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from people of color and raised poor and working class people, locally and internationally, who are cooperating and conserving and living in ways that many white middle-class people have lost touch with.  I’ll be speaking about my experience, understanding that my situation is unique and that I have had a lot of privilege to have the space to figure out new solutions, and these solutions won’t work for everyone.  Oppression is very real and puts us in a bind unequally.   Making space in my life has given me the time to work on fighting to end systemic oppression without burning out.

Check out the recording of the talk, and also a shorter radio interview to promote the talk.