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 www.rhizhome.com:
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]
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.)
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.