San Juan Knocking on Hampden County’s Door

Amid all the coverage of the presidential election, Brexit, multiple shootings, and the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Europe and Syria, another big story is unfolding in Puerto Rico. For those of you who need a brief reminder about the island and its relationship to the US:


Puerto Rico came into “possession” of the United States as a product of the Spanish-American war, and also contributed to the legend of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders (with his famous ride up San Juan Hill). Unlike Hawaii, which achieved statehood in 1959, Puerto Rico has remained a territory, even though a 2012 referendum showed residents supported initiating the statehood process. Congress has yet to act on the results of the referendum.

There are some advantages to being a territory of the United States instead of a state, including an advantageous personal income tax rate (zero, for many). However, one of the distinct disadvantages is that they are not allowed to declare bankruptcy like a state or municipality can. This leaves them with few options in terms of paying down their $70 billion debt.

How did the island of 3.4 million people accrue a debt of $70 billion? In short, it was access to easy credit and a tenaciously bad economy that created this economic nightmare (read this primer by the New York Times for more information, if you’re curious). And now we stand just weeks away from a major debt payment deadline of $2 billion. Without congressional action, it is unlikely the island will be able to make the payment and will default, which is bad news for everyone.

They’re Not Immigrants

Unsurprisingly, many Puerto Ricans are choosing to leave the island for greener pastures (I probably would, too). The island’s population has been declining for sometime now, from a high of 3.8 million in 2000 to about 3.4 million people today. That’s around 400,000 people who left the island, mostly for the mainland.

As a local blogger Rational Urbanism pointed out in a recent post, it’s worth remembering that Puerto Ricans are our fellow Americans – not immigrants. Just like Oklahoma farmers in the dust bowl, Puerto Ricans are leaving one part of the country for another in the hopes of a brighter future. And given the fact that the Pioneer Valley has such a large Puerto Rican population already, I have started to wonder if we’re going to see an even larger influx of Puerto Rican newcomers in the near future (especially if the debt crisis isn’t resolved).

Census Tract map showing percentage of the population with Puerto Rican origins. Source: 2013 American Community Survey

Assuming that is the trend, then Springfield and Holyoke should expect an increase in the percentage of residents with limited English proficiency, and probably an increase households that need supportive services like Section 8 vouchers, food stamps, heating assistance, etc.

If Congress continues to kick the can down the road on the Puerto Rican debt crisis, then it is local communities and, to a lesser extent, states that will have to pick up the slack in supporting those who abandon the island. In general, we can expect those with the least economic means to be the ones to pull up stake and move – just like the Irish 150 years before them. It would serve Hampden County well, and Springfield and Holyoke in particular, to anticipate this potential demographic surge and plan accordingly.


We Need More Women in Politics

As the Democratic primary winds down, I’ve been noticing a crop of dismaying Hillary Clinton memes popping up on my Facebook feed that are focusing on her choice of clothing at some event:

hillary jacket


clinton moomoo
“Even worse is that it looks like a burlap housecoat. It doesn’t even look more tailored than a moomoo from Big Lots.” 


Sure, there are plenty of things to question or critique Hillary Clinton on: her foreign policy record, her and her husband’s handling of welfare reform, her acceptance of big checks from big donors, etc.

But her jacket? Come on.

I am surprised to find that even people on the left are taking these misogynistic pot-shots at Hillary Clinton. Anyone who considers themselves a feminist (which I do, and strive to uphold feminist values) must recognize that Hillary Clinton’s nomination is a milestone in the feminist movement, making this kind of immature critique of her wardrobe all the more offensive and embarrassing. published an excellent piece about how you don’t need to like Hillary Clinton, but you should still celebrate her candidacy. Their article, Don’t call it a win for women: Hillary’s victory is a triumph for the women’s movement, and there’s a difference goes through the reasons why Clinton is a bad candidate, and the policies she has supported in the past probably weren’t good for American women in general (welfare reform in particular). But no matter how much you dislike her policies, she is no less of a victory in the women’s movement (just like, it might pain some to say, Sarah Palin’s nomination to Vice Presidency and Margaret Thatcher’s ascension to Prime Minister).

And so it should be little surprise to anyone, but most of all those on the left, that feminists are sensitive to criticisms of Clinton’s choice of clothing. A response I’ve heard defending such ad hominem attacks goes like, “Bernie Sanders gets criticized for his disheveled appearance all the time, so what’s the big deal?”

The big deal is that Bernie Sanders isn’t a milestone in the feminist movement, and that matters.

We Need More Female Politicians

Furthermore, this demeaning of female politicians’ appearances just reinforces the reluctance many women feel about pursuing public office. Making women feel unwelcome in these positions of power is problematic for a lot of reasons, but fundamentally I think it undermines the premise of our electoral system.

A representative republic, which we live in, demands having elected leaders who represent – and are representative of – those who elected them. A classic way in which this notion is undermined is through gerrymandering, or combining districts so as to reduce the impact of a particular group of people.

Women comprise roughly half of the population no matter where you are, but tend to represent nowhere near that number of elected officials. Looking just at the Pioneer Valley, I came up with the following maps (green is male, red is female; click to scroll through the maps):

The number of female electeds in the Pioneer Valley is anemic, particularly outside of Hampshire County. One city, Chicopee, didn’t even have a single female city councilor! Given that women are about half of the electorate, our representatives don’t seem very representative.

We can argue about whether women make better leaders, or whether they are able to work more cooperatively, or whether they are less partisan. For me, though, what it really comes down to is whether our politicians should actually represent the people. I don’t think we need to adhere strictly to identity politics where demographics decide everything. We should of course be primarily concerned with electing responsible, effective leaders. But when such a large segment of the Pioneer Valley (and country) is so drastically underrepresented in our elected leadership, that strikes me as a problem.

And that’s why mocking pictures about Hillary Clinton’s jacket are so offensive. They imply that the candidate doesn’t need to be taken seriously, that the candidate has failed as a woman (since fashion sense is such an essential feminine quality), and that we need not consider her any further.

Criticize Clinton, and any other politician, as much as you want on the issues. But leave her style choices out of it. We’re better than that.


Springfield, The 5th Most “Normal” American Town

I just saw this article on one of my favorite blogs, FiveThirtyEight: ‘Normal America’ Is Not A Small Town Of White People. The gist of the article is that we usually think of Smallville, or Grover’s Corners, or some other predominantly white small town as the quintessentially American setting.

Think again.

America is increasingly diverse, and the most “normal” cities in America reflect that. Here’s the top 10 list that they put together.

most normal cities
Source: FiveThirtyEight

That’s right, Springfield, with its robust Hispanic population, is number 5 on that list. Hartford is number 3. It turns out I am living in a really “normal” part of the country.

This is especially important in the national political conversation for what it means to be “American.” During his candidacy, Ted Cruz mocked Donald Trump’s “New York Values,” implying that they were somehow different from “American values.” But as the list above shows, “normal” America is urban, diverse, and working class – something that describes much of New York quite well.

If the perception ever catches up to the reality, I look forward to national political candidates flocking here to the Pioneer Valley to show the median voter that they are just like everyone else – going to the Big E, checking out the Basketball Hall of Fame, and eating a big heap of mofongo.

Where Thoreau Isn’t Welcome

I meant to post this a while ago, but life got in the way (AKA going out of town and then doing what feels like a Sisyphean amount of housework). Back in early May, I was very frustrated to hear that yet another relatively affluent town voted to block more affordable housing options through its zoning laws. This happens all too frequently (no fewer than three times while I was on Town Meeting in Belmont) and deserves examining.

A Tiny House on a Farm

The story went something like this: A young woman named Sarah Hastings built a tiny home in Hadley while in college at Mount Holyoke, the whole thing costing about $15,000. A truly tiny house, at just 190 square feet everything in the home is designed for space efficiency. As she describes on her website

The simple lifestyle is attainable.  Before graduating from college in 2015, I designed and built my tiny home in order to open my world to opportunity and freedom.  My surroundings are engineered to accommodate natural processes and conscious daily decisions.   Because tiny homes are still a grey area between codes, my journey is paving the way for a more accessible way to live lightly. [emphasis mine]


tiny house
Sarah Hastings (lower right) and her tiny house. Source: MassLive

Unfortunately, that gets to the crux of the matter – Hadley zoning code does not allow for what Sarah’s home technically is, what’s called a detached Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU). Sometimes also called in-law cottages, ADUs are a really easy way for a town to allow for a modest amount of new housing development that tends to be much more affordable than the typical half acre lot McMansion development done today.

Of course, in addition to affordability, Sarah was interested in the idea of “living light.” Tiny homes, beyond being cheap, also tend to be much lower impact than the typical house. Heating costs alone are dramatically lower, and she designed her home to conserve water and electricity, and minimize the amount of waste produced.

Ensuing Controversy

Needless to say, many in the town hated it. Because the home was at best in a gray area when it came to zoning, the town decided to allow the home to stay until a bylaw was passed making her house expressly sanctioned. The packed Town Meeting on May 5th was one of the more rancorous, poorly moderated town meetings that I’ve ever seen. Ultimately, after about half an hour of discussion, they voted 2/3 against the amendment. Sarah had to vacate the next day.

The arguments against legalizing tiny homes went like this:

  1. Town character – As usual, the “rural character” of the town was brought up as a reason to oppose the bylaw change. Of course, if 1700s New York City had “preserved town character” through zoning, then Times Square would still be farmland.
  2. Flouting the law – Many residents spoke out against the bylaw because Sarah broke the law by building the tiny house in the first place. However, the whole point of civil disobedience is that you break the law in order to change it – a point that seemed to have been lost on the Town Meeting members.
  3. “Student Stuffers” – One of the planning board members got up to oppose the development of tiny houses because he was sure they would end up turning into student housing. I don’t know what evidence there is of that happening, and even if it did, why that would be a bad thing (I used to be a student, and thought I made a fine neighbor).

Is Town Meeting Inherently Flawed?

I am beginning to wonder if the Town Meeting form of government is even capable of responsibly handling questions of zoning. Town Meeting members tend to be older white home owners, regardless of the demographic makeup of the town. In my experience, this makes a Town Meeting especially resistant to change, particularly one that could impact home values. These exclusionary zoning practices are a big part of what’s leading to the current national housing crunch.

Hadley is a relatively wealthy town by Pioneer Valley standards, ranking in the top third for all communities in the Pioneer Valley for household income. This makes their decision to illegalize this form of more affordable housing even more egregious, since the segregation of lower-income households from higher-income communities is a driver of the opportunity gap. (Unfortunately, I couldn’t embed the interactive map I made because of WordPress limitations, but you can check it out here. Below is just a screenshot.)

income map
Hadley is a relatively wealthy community, voting down affordable housing. Interactive map found here.

What Hadley voted to do was to exclude those who wanted to live light, who wanted to live a little different – those who couldn’t afford to live otherwise. Were this the 1850s, Hadley would have kicked out Henry David Thoreau because his tiny home in the woods violated zoning code. Our local laws today, especially in wealthier communities, are stifling innovation, penalizing the young and the poor, and are hurting the commonwealth and the country. I hope we can fix it, though I don’t know if the town meeting system is equipped to do so.