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 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]


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.



The Geography of Somewhere

The inevitability of moving to the Pioneer Valley was by no means a given. My wife and I knew that we wanted to leave the Boston area (for a variety of reasons, the cost of housing being first and foremost among them), but there were a lot of different places we could go.

My wife grew up in New Mexico, and I was born and raised in Kentucky. We have lived in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and so had experienced many different parts of the continental US. Each part of the country has something to offer: climate, or culture, or affordability, or agreeable politics. But in the end, a crucial factor for both of us is something lacking in a lot of the country: place.  Continue reading “The Geography of Somewhere”

Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City

Lewis Mumford, that grandiloquent titan of the urban planning field, detailed urban development in his magnum opus, The City in History. In it, he wrote about the transition from Neolithic villages into the modern day human settlement, the city.

Neolithic villages, Mumford wrote, were architecturally rounded, or womb-like – essentially feminine. Replacing those settlements, the modern city brought:

. . .male symbolisms and abstractions now become manifest; they show themselves in the insistent straight line, the rectangle, the firmly bounded geometric plane, the phallic tower and the obelisk. . .

In Mumford’s view, the feminine design of the neolithic village was a vessel for life. This was overtaken by the masculine drive for dominance and power, as expressed through the ziggurat, or bell tower, or modern day skyscraper.

My daily bike commute takes me from the North End of Springfield up through Chicopee and then to where I live in Holyoke. Along the way I ride past two city halls, and am not too far from a third. Mumford’s words echo as I whoosh past. Continue reading “Lewis Mumford’s Phallic City”