Category Archives: Community

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.

Taxes

  • 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.

Sharing

  • 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.

Rents

  • 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.

Zoning

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

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?”

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.

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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?