Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Since moving to Hampden County, I’ve thought a lot about economic development, about why Holyoke and Springfield have so many blighted, abandoned structures, and about what we can do to fix that. But then a discussion I went to last Tuesday evening, “Places that Matter,” turned to the topic of gentrification, which was surprising. Surprising because when I think of Holyoke, I think of a place far away from even the prospect of gentrification. And yet a spirited conversation ensued nonetheless. 

The gist of the meeting was that some Architecture and Planning professors at UMass-Amherst had developed an online historic preservation tool. The tool pulls posts from Twitter and Flickr and then places mentions of specific Holyoke places on a map. Based on the number of mentions a certain place gets, it is ranked as an “important” place in the city. Ultimately, this could be a tool to help inform where historic preservation efforts should be targeted, rather than the traditional method of a Historic Preservation Commission and perhaps a few community members at sparsely-attended evening public meetings deciding what places are historically significant.

I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd at this presentation – it was about half white folks and half non-white, primarily Puerto Rican. Toward the end of the event, we discussed how we would like to see these “important” places marked, preserved, or otherwise commemorated.

At first, people suggested typical things – wayfinding signs, maps, plaques, etc. But then the question came up, who are we creating these designations for? And that led to a discussion about how do we ensure that the primarily non-white and/or Latino community residents benefit from this new attention to historic or “important” places in their neighborhoods, and not just “tourists” or “visitors.” Which, it quickly became obvious, “tourists” and “visitors” were code for “gentrifyers.”

The Broken American Economic Development Model

As far as I can tell, America basically doesn’t have a good economic development model for cities.

The model seems to be basically this: Wait around until a blighted area becomes desirable, at which point developers build luxury condos and boutique dog pedicure (“peticure”?) businesses, and just accept the skyrocketing housing costs. Residents, especially those who rent, get pushed out of the neighborhood while homeowners benefit from an incredible windfall that they more or less lucked into. This has happened in Boston’s South End, New York’s Williamsburg, Washington DC’s Columbia Heights, even here in the Pioneer Valley’s Northampton.

And then there are those areas which never gentrify, which is most of them. According to an analysis by Governing Magazine, only 8% of census tracts gentrified since the 2000 census. In those places, the millennial white collar hipsters never appear. Here in Massachusetts, think Fitchburg, think Orange, think Springfield, and yes, think Holyoke.

boston census tracts
Map of gentrified Boston census tracts since 2000. Source: Governing Magazine

So given the fact that there are basically two pathways for an impoverished neighborhood with blighted buildings and a lack of services (skyrocket into unaffordability or languish in poverty and disinvestment), economic development efforts leave residents – especially poor residents, especially people of color – with only bad options. But time and again, I have seen residents opt for the status quo because at least they won’t be displaced. And who can blame them?

Will Hampden County Ever Gentrify?

Of course, I’m not sure that Hampden County is going to be struggling in any significant way with gentrification in the near future. There may be certain places, like Longmeadow or maybe Atwater Park in Springfield or the Holyoke Highlands where housing affordability is a widespread issue.* But the population in these urban areas has declined from their record highs, meaning that the housing stock far exceeds the demand for housing. And then there are the numerous redevelopment opportunities for housing afforded by the abandoned mill buildings sprinkled all over the valley.

In short, I think there will be enough housing to keep prices pretty low for a long time.

population chart
Population of Springfield and Holyoke. Source: US Census Bureau

So I was glad that we went through the exercise of identifying important place. And I’m glad that we thought about how to mark where these important places are. And I’m certainly glad that we’re already thinking about what it will mean if we succeed and the “secret” of Holyoke gets out (that it’s a wonderful, diverse community with many excellent cultural, architectural, and natural resources). Gentrification is a legitimate concern. However, and I could be wrong here when I say this, but I think we’re a long way off from needing to deal with it in any big way here in Hampden County. 

*I should note that housing affordability will always be a major issue for households in or near poverty. When I talk about gentrification, I am specifically referring to housing affordability problems expanding beyond households in poverty to impacting middle-income households as well.

 

New Analysis: Proximity to Bus Routes Raises Property Values

I just finished up a GIS course on Coursera, and for the capstone project I tried to answer the question, “Does being near a bus route make your home more or less valuable?” I could see it go either way – bus service is an amenity, and the value of that amenity should be reflected in the value of a home located nearby. On the other hand, bus service – especially outside of the Boston area – has a stigma to it (the result of classism, or racism, or both). So I could see property values actually being lower the closer they were to bus lines.

I did the analysis for properties served by Regional Transit Authorities (RTAs) because their boundaries are pretty set – the MBTA service area is a little mushier, with Commuter Rail service spanning all the way to Worcester. The analysis shows that in almost all parts of the state, having a home near a bus line raises the value of your property.

final_map
Legend shows impact of proximity to rubber tire transit per meter closer to a bus route. So a value of $20 would mean that for every meter closer to a bus route, a residential property would be $20/acre higher. 

What’s really exciting about this analysis is that it’s the first I’ve heard of which looks specifically at rubber tire bus service. Most other studies look at rail transit or bus rapid transit, generally finding positive impacts on property values. These studies are often used to justify investment in building rail or BRT facilities.

While rubber tire bus service doesn’t require the same level of capital outlay as other kinds of transit, it still requires investment and community support. I hope this analysis will help generate a little more excitement for bus routes and dispel some of the stigma.

For anyone interested in the details of how I did the analysis, you can read the report here. Without getting too technical, I used a linear regression model to control for variables like access to jobs, access to highways, crime rate, school quality, etc. This helped to isolate the impact of transit alone without these confounding variables.

If you have any questions or thoughts, please send them my way! You can direct message me on Twitter, @pricearmstrong.

Why I Left Boston

It’s official – the last of my ties to the Boston area have been cut, as our lease on the apartment in Belmont expired on June 30th. I have some mixed emotions about leaving the Boston area, but overall am delighted with the change. I thought I would take the opportunity of my newfound rent-free existence to reflect on the reasons why I left.

It’s all about the Benjamins

When thinking about the long-term viability of living in Belmont, the aspect most fatal to staying was simple – housing is exorbitantly expensive. The 2-bedroom, ~900 square foot apartment where my wife and I lived cost just under $1,900 per month, and rose to $2,100 once we left. That’s over $25,000 per year just in rent!

It’s also worth noting that our rent went up between 3% and 5% every year, which admittedly was less than the 15 – 20% rent increases seen just down the road in Cambridge. Those kinds of rent increases are several times the general rate of inflation, and certainly outpaced the growth in our household income. When costs inflate at a higher rate than income, that’s a long-term path to financial hardship.

 

rent heat map
Slightly dated rent heat map of the Boston area – I was living in the yellow-ish area west of Harvard Square. Source: WBUR

The prospect of stabilizing our housing costs by buying a home was also fraught. We really didn’t want to have to dive into the fray of endless open houses, bidding wars, and exhausting our savings, especially when the hard-fought prize would be a condo no better – and possibly worse – than the apartment we were already renting in Belmont.

I won’t get into what I think are the causes of or solutions to the shortage of affordable housing in the Boston area (cough cough zoning reform sneeze wheeze build more housing). I am only pointing out that housing affordability by itself was the main reason why my wife and I left Boston.

Green Acres

One of my favorite pastimes, when I have the time to do it, is cycling. I love getting out on the road and winding down country roads lost in thought. Unfortunately, biking from Belmont would take me at least 45 minutes to get out of dense suburban development, and then another hour to get into anything resembling “rural.” That’s two hours of pedaling to get into the real cycling territory.

I contrast that with Holyoke, where it seems like I live in a city on nature’s doorstep. A great example of this is the Mount Tom State Reservation, just up the hill from our house. There is amazing hiking, beautiful vistas, and a real feeling of seclusion. And if you go more than 5 or 10 miles east or west of the Connecticut River valley, it quickly gets pastoral and hilly. The mix of urban amenities and nearby natural areas is deeply gratifying.

20160131_161629
Picture of me with my friend Andrew and his buddy Nigel in a big abandoned rock quarry on Mt. Tom.

Potential

Finally, one of the more intangible things I love about Holyoke is something that I can only call potential. It is a city with amazing resources being underutilized. It has gobs of industrial space just begging to get turned into something – anything – productive. It has pocket parks and scenic overlooks that, sure, need to be spruced up and maintained, but are primed to be activated. And it has a core of citizens who have stuck with the city through the bad decades of arson and urban decline, and are committed to the city’s nascent resurgence.

But more than that is the potential Holyoke is unlocking in me. Frankly, the Boston area doesn’t need another civic-minded bicycle enthusiast. The Pioneer Valley, on the other hand, might have a place for a guy with a laptop, free GIS software, and no shortage of opinions. And a blog.

As I said, I have mixed feelings about leaving Boston – there is a wealth of culture, a critical mass of very smart people, and is the political and economic engine of the Bay State. As I spend more time in the Pioneer Valley, though, I recognize how clearly right my decision was. All of the economic incentives were there for me to vacate the Boston area, and my wife and I were so lucky to find a place waiting for us in Holyoke.

Why Northampton Is Expensive And Holyoke Is Not

I was chatting with a coworker who grew up in Northampton about how the city has changed over the years. He was sort of shaking his head in shock and disappointment, saying, “It’s just gotten so expensive. I don’t even know who can afford to live here anymore.”

It’s true. My wife and I have been looking at buying a home in the Pioneer Valley, focusing on Northampton, Easthampton, and Holyoke. We found that for $300,000, you can get a mansion in Holyoke, a nice-ish 3 or 4 bedroom in Easthampton, and a 2-bedroom that needs updating in Northampton – if you’re lucky.

Same Price, Two Vastly Different Homes

Here are two examples I found: Continue reading “Why Northampton Is Expensive And Holyoke Is Not”