Guest columnist Eric Cochrane: More housing not the enemy

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STAFF FILE PHOTO STAFF FILE PHOTO

By ERIC COCHRANE

Published: 06-13-2024 7:19 PM

 

Several years ago at a cafe in Amherst, I overheard a mom of two former classmates rant about Pioneer Valley kids moving to New York City. She added that she grew up there and moved away when she turned 18, complaining about how terrible and smelly it is. The reason for this rant is that she grew up when cities and density were associated with high crime rates, leaded gasoline, and poor social services. It was a time when people fled major cities in droves, seeking a better place.

My mom is a product of this exodus, leaving her hometown of Providence in the 1970s as it fell into disrepair. It’s been several decades since; large cities have improved and crime has plummeted 71% from 1993 to 2022. High density is now associated with healthy lifestyles and strong communities.

But despite what we know, many communities in Massachusetts are hesitant to change, even during a housing crisis, influenced by archaic beliefs about cities.

Across the state, the recently implemented MBTA Communities Act is a start to address the housing crisis. It mandates cities and towns that fall under the law need at least one zoning district for multifamily housing, which must be within a half-mile of a train or bus station when applicable, with no age restrictions.

More than 70 communities have complied with the law, but holdouts exist. Milton has refused to commit, with a referendum in which voters opposed the law passing in March. Attorney-General Andrea Campbell filed a lawsuit against Milton for lack of compliance. Wrentham officials also oppose the act, resorting to the American Dream and homeownership.

Colonial nostalgia explains how a resident of Marblehead, which is not in compliance, equated dense housing to British colonialism. Tell that to the Squamish Nation’s ambitious plan in Vancouver, B.C. for dense, high-rise housing.

Nostalgia arguments, which seem ubiquitous in Massachusetts, are further undercut by the 12-0 vote by the City Council in Burlington, Vermont for multifamily homes to be built where previously banned. Massachusetts touts its Colonial history, but we do not have the strongest record on forward-looking imagination, and we need a strong determination to tackle the housing crisis.

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People learn of proposals in their towns and often resort to fear-mongering about change. Pushback often comes from people who identify as progressive, only to echo convicted felon Donald Trump, who opposes banning exclusive single-family zoning, or former MassGOP chair Jim Lyons, a conservative who started in politics opposing the MBTA Red Line going to his hometown of Arlington.

When I wrote about a Leverett housing proposal in December, someone I know who lives there commented on social media about affordability, saying “we’ll see.” We did see, in Austin, Texas, where rents fell 12.5% since December due to upzoning and housing oversupply. If more housing is built, oversupply helps prices decrease.

The question of Valley kids moving to NYC is not the right one. It’s been answered, and it is that NYC, and my current city of Somerville, embrace people over cars. A better question is why so many Valley kids are not staying in the Valley.

The MBTA Communities Act does not apply to western Massachusetts, but I ponder how vibrant and better the region can be if towns built housing, and looked to the future rather than the past. Development would help Amherst be affordable for young people; for Northampton to have a permanent pedestrian zone, as in Burlington and Ithaca, New York; and for Shelburne to be an outdoor access destination akin to Bend, Oregon.

We can decide to act small and lose residents, or we can embrace the future by seeing what works elsewhere, as Cambridge did in abolishing parking minimums.

We need strong determination to address housing and grow up rather than grow out. We also need progressive, pro-housing people to run for office against those who oppose new housing. Streamlining permitting, upzoning, and ending parking minimums are forward-thinking ideas that can help us ensure housing for all and for towns to thrive.

Eric Cochrane lives in Somerville.