It is time that we stop using the word “housing” as a political cudgel and make greater efforts at addressing and responding to the policies and processes that are responsible for the housing crisis epidemic and concurrent economic inequality that comes with it.
The work of the Great Barrington planning board before and after my participation has resulted in what I like to think is a “housing first” zoning policy. We have created a policy that allows for the incremental growth of our residential neighborhoods, have implemented re-zoning in areas which were not working toward housing production and continue to look for ways to harness the energy our citizens have shown toward our housing efforts by discussing common-sense policy toward an incremental growth strategy. Still, there is much to be done.
We can begin by asking what having shelter means to us. The answer to this question can be many things to many people. At its most basic, a home is shelter, a place to live, the place where memories accumulate and the backbone of society. In America, it has become the largest source of wealth for those who are housed. It is part of our national identity, the thing we most fight to protect. For this reason we need to consider the housing problem as not having as much to do with housing as with real estate and investment. However, I encourage everyone to ask themselves if a home can actually be all of these things, if it should be all of these things, if the development patterns that created these beliefs is working? Ask yourself, “Is housing a privilege or a human right?”
I believe, especially in the economy in which we participate and the role that housing plays in that economy, that housing should be declared a human right. Elected officials should design, create and experiment with new ideas to make housing accessible for all. In Great Barrington, we allow single-family development by right, no questions asked. Every other type of residential development requires town review in the form of either site plan or special-permit reviews. Also, the smallest type of residential development, the accessory dwelling unit, requires site-plan approval, as does the construction of a second dwelling. It should be known that appearing before a board requires the preparation of documents with a level of expertise beyond the knowledge of most land owners. There is no question that the review process increases the cost of housing construction and presents us with an excellent opportunity to ask ourselves if the processes of the past are helping us as a society in the present and into the future?
I have proposed to make all housing development by-right. It is an idea that is gaining momentum across the country and which we should seriously consider. At the very least, I have proposed targeted by-right developments to address the large group of working people who make too much income to qualify for affordable housing, but too little to afford market-rate real estate. Many like to call them “the workforce,” which is fine by me. Giving citizens, investors, municipalities and developers the option of building for working people earning up to 150% of area median income could send a message that would benefit all of us. Builders will know that their tenants can afford their offering, that their projects will be successful and that Great Barrington has give them a green light. I believe with these incentives, making the decision to invest in Great Barrington would be more palatable. We need a real estate market that is responsive to present-day capital flows and the demands it puts on supply. Targeting developments for fast-track permitting can be a step toward providing housing options that a range of people can afford.
Some may have heard reference to a Great Barrington Selectboard/Planning Board Housing Sub-Committee. Almost four years ago, both boards thought it would be a good idea to form a joint committee to brainstorm ideas to promote housing production in town and which could be brought forward to the boards for action. I served as vice-chair of and was nominated chair after a change in the sub-committee’s membership. Although a great idea on behalf of the boards, and the potential to broaden the housing discussion in myriad directions, there has been only two items that have come out of the committee. The first was a declaration, made by then Selectboard member Kate Burke, to explore a tax exemption for homeowners who rent their properties at affordable prices. Unfortunately, that declaration was made days be for the COVID pandemic took hold and was lost to history. The second item has been shown to have only a tertiary relationship to housing. You guessed it, the short-term rental regulation that just passed town meeting.
Despite the many ideas that have come before the sub-committee, very few have made it out of committee. Among those are:
- Tax Incentive Financing for Housing Production
- Residential Tax Exemption for Affordable or Workforce Housing
- Targeted Sewer Fee Reductions or Grants
- Targeted Density Bonuses
- Route 7 Corridor Re-Zoning
- Senior Housing Tax Exemption
- Property Tax Exemption for Affordable or Workforce Housing
- Creation of a Housing Development Position
- Partnering with CDCSB and Construct to Explore Housing State & Federal Grant Opportunities
- Grant Programs for Accessory Dwelling Units
- Affordable Housing Tax Exemption or Grant Program
- Affordable Housing Tax Incentive or Grant Program
- Starter Home Grant Program
- Municipal Lending for Housing Development
- Additional Transfer Fees to fund the Affordable Housing Trust Fund
- Short-Term Rental Community Impact Fee
- Buyouts to Short-Term Rental Conversion to Long-Term Rental
- Stipends for Landlords to Keep Rents Affordable
- By Right Residential Developments
- Workforce Housing Special Tax Exemption
Only a few have made it past committee. As a planning board member, I have very little impact over policy that is not related to land use. To that effect, the planning board has and will continue to discuss density bonuses, re-zonings, and reforms to the development process. It is up to the Selectboard membership of the sub-committee to take action on the rest. These will be difficult discussions, but they need to take place. The context of these discussions should be the reality that housing is a human right, the recognition that the past 90-plus years of development in the country has squandered resources, and the securitization of real property are largely responsible for the inequalities that we are experiencing in the housing market today.
Locally, we must recognize that neighborhoods are important. Despite what many of our citizens believe, I feel safe to say that every citizen of Great Barrington cares a great deal about our town, our place in it and the lifestyle if affords us. But no place can be exempt from change. The planning board’s efforts focused on incremental change are essential to meeting the demands of the day while maintaining the best qualities of our districts. I was heartened to hear loud cheers at town meeting whenever someone mentioned “workforce housing.” Heartened and surprised because the planning board hardly gets that type of support whenever we review a proposed housing project. I invite those who cheered at town meeting as well as the rest of you who care about the health of our town to show your support for housing as a human right which Great Barrington must meet.