Guest columnist Mary C. McKittrick: Runaway development has one goal

Published: 2/25/2021 8:07:29 PM

In recent years a developer has been buying old homes in the Bay State Village neighborhood of Northampton, tearing them down and replacing them with multiple single-family houses that sell for $500,000 and up and dwarf the neighboring homes. The rate of development here is escalating and the latest project, on Federal Street, has neighbors concerned that this area of modest homes will shift increasingly upwards on the socioeconomic scale. That a developer is pushing projects through to make money without regard to this impact on the neighborhood and the city pushes several buttons for me.

Bay State Village is a neighborhood of modest homes. It is not particularly cohesive architecturally in that it includes farmhouses, bungalows, tiny ranches, and various other styles, but for years it was relatively affordable. We bought our house here in 1996 because it was the only two-story house in town within our small budget. The current spate of development means that we are losing a variety of smaller and usually well-built homes and getting larger ones that cost significantly more. More importantly they are driving up the cost of home ownership in the area while doing nothing to ameliorate the desperate need for housing for people of limited or no means.

It was suggested to me in a recent discussion on social media that we should not object to any development that will increase the housing stock in Northampton. Possibly this logic is tied to the belief that an increase in even expensive housing will somehow “trickle down” and benefit lower income and houseless people – perhaps because housing the wealthy will leave the less expensive homes for those of lower means – a considerable leap of faith. We all know that trickle-down economics is a myth.

In this same discussion it was suggested I was wrong to malign someone for having the initiative and ambition to make money in real estate. I appreciated the comment because it allowed me to examine and focus my thoughts and to conclude that, yes, I really do object to this kind of vulture capitalism.

The notion of a meritocracy, where the spoils go to those who have the “talent” to make the most of them, is abhorrent to me because people do not have equal access to those spoils. People of color have systematically been denied equal access to goods, services and opportunity in the U.S. The New Deal offered amazing benefits after World War II in the form of jobs, housing and education, but only to white people, with the result that generations of Black people and other people of color have lost out on the opportunity to go to good schools, get good jobs, own a home and accumulate wealth that they could pass on to their children.

So to say that people like this developer have every right to make money if they have the smarts to do it touches a big nerve for me. Runaway development has one goal: to put money in the pockets of a few at the expensive of the community. It has resulted in “gentrification” around the country and the subsequent loss of affordable housing and increasing displacement of the middle and lower economic strata.

New York City is a prime example of this: it is no longer possible for “average” people to live there and raise families, and we have developers like Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg to thank for this. Increasingly, corporate America is taking over the nooks and crannies of commercial life so that more and more of our expenditures for goods and services are going to fewer and fewer entities including Amazon, CVS, Comcast, Sinclair Broadcasting and the like, who answer only to their shareholders. I want to push back against this and try to keep more expenditures local, including in the construction of new (modestly priced!) homes with local materials and labor.

I love the concept of infill. I don’t love the idea of shoehorning buildings into every available inch — we need open space for our mental health, among other things, as well as habitat for wildlife. I do love the idea of repurposing underutilized structures and spaces. There is commercial space on King Street that could be turned into apartments and small shops, but it seems all destined for more banks and chain stores. A huge Victorian on Old South Street downtown was a wasted opportunity because its former owner wrote crippling restrictions into her will that limited the property’s subsequent use. The place could have housed several families beautifully, or even been a lovely rooming house. The old nursing home property on Bridge Road offers another opportunity to build affordable housing.

I’ve heard complaints that Northampton acquires lots of land and ties it up as green space instead of building houses. This is an incredibly short-sighted view and a false dichotomy. Habitat loss continues to contribute to massive decrease in biodiversity and the impact of this on our world is more than I can address here, but I can’t imagine having to endure this pandemic without open space for us to get fresh air and enjoy nature without being absolutely on top of each other.

The city administration appears to want to attract businesses to Northampton by incentivizing development but developers are able to do considerable damage in the process. The city needs coherent guidelines, and infill needs oversight. We cannot simply hope that a developer comes along who will build decent affordable housing. We need little enclaves of housing of various kinds, distributed throughout the city and in everyone’s “backyard.” Tiny homes, small houses, row houses, rooming houses, apartment buildings, preferably with local builders and labor and without corporate designers. These buildings need to be different, radiate character, and be well and thoughtfully made. People of all economic means deserve this.

Objection to neighborhood development is usually greeted with accusations of a “not in my backyard” mentality. In this case, I embrace the label. I want greater diversity here in my backyard, and the ongoing building spree in Bay State Village threatens to crush that.

Mary C. McKitrick is a Northampton resident.

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