Priced out of Paradise City: Report details barriers to fair housing in Northampton

  • This graph, from the report “Unlocking Opportunity: An Assessment of Barriers to Fair Housing in Northampton,” tracks changes in the median sales price of homes in Northampton from 1990 to 2018. PIONEER VALLEY PLANNING COMMISSION

  • This graph, from the report “Unlocking Opportunity: An Assessment of Barriers to Fair Housing in Northampton,” depicts complaints about discrimination in housing in Northampton, sorted by category, over the last five years. PIONEER VALLEY PLANNING COMMISSION

  • The Lumber Yard, a new 55-unit complex of affordable apartments, is located on the site of the former Northampton Lumber Company on Pleasant Street in Northampton. The building, which also features retail space, had an open house on Friday, June 28, 2019. STAFF PHOTO / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Valley Community Development Corp. Executive Director Joanne Campbell speaks at an open house June 28 in the courtyard of The Lumber Yard, a new 55-unit complex of affordable apartments on Pleasant Street in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 1/21/2020 11:39:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Though Northampton has been dubbed by some as “Paradise City,” it’s not a paradise accessible to everyone, says a new report looking at the barriers to fair housing in the city.

“As a working-class single parent, I cannot imagine ever being able to afford a home in Northampton,” one city resident is quoted as saying in the report. “That feels frustrating because I do feel safe here. But it’s way too overpriced.”

Many renters also struggle with high costs — 38% are spending more than half their income on rent. Anyone working full time at minimum wage would spend about 51% of their income to pay the gross median rent in the city, according to the study, “Unlocking Opportunity: An Assessment of Barriers to Fair Housing in Northampton.”

The report, commissioned by the city and written by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, details 16 barriers to housing access and provides solutions to address them. The commission interviewed people including property managers and social service providers and distributed a survey to residents.

The report is dated August 2019, but the city waited until last week to formally release it because the mayor’s Panhandling Work Group released a different analysis, on panhandling, last fall. “We just wanted to make sure they both got their fair amount of attention, said Todd Weir, chairman of the Housing Partnership, a mayor-appointed group that works on housing issues.

Cost is a key problem. Home prices in the city have been rising steadily over the past several decades, and rental prices have also spiked. Since 2010, the median gross rent has increased by 25%. The median cost of housing for renters and homeowners is $1,166 per month — a price that requires residents to make $46,640 each year to afford and spend no more than 30% of their income on housing.

“This has an adverse impact on people of color who have median incomes that are ‘significantly lower’ than those of white households in Northampton and who are more than twice as likely to be renters as homeowners,” Meris Bergquist, executive director of Massachusetts Fair Housing Center in Holyoke, wrote in a statement to the Gazette.

At the same time, the number of expensive units has skyrocketed — since 2010, units priced at $2,000 or higher have increased by more than 850%.

“The big, obvious thing is that we just need more affordable housing,” said Weir, who’s also pastor of the First Churches of Northampton. “That’s the biggest barrier, and the hardest nut to crack is finding the money and space to develop.”

Limited options for families

Another issue is lack of choice for families. Overall in the city, there are very few homes with more than three bedrooms.

“Families I’m trying to place don’t even look in Northampton,” one service provider is quoted as saying in the report. “They know that there are so few bigger houses on the market and that they’re gonna have to compete with college kids. They want to go to Northampton schools, but they can’t find a house.”

The limited number of multi-bedroom homes disproportionately affects people of color, across racial groups. Asian and Latino people are more likely to live in larger Northampton households with five or more people, the report said.

“This barrier helps to perpetuate the high rate of housing segregation between Latinos and whites in Hampden and Hampshire County by excluding larger families of color who would like to raise their family in Northampton,” Bergquist wrote.

The report also highlighted challenges such as limited public transportation, service agencies strapped for resources, long waitlists for affordable housing, and difficulties finding accessible housing for those with disabilities. More than half the complaints made in Northampton to the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center over the past five years were based on disability, the report said.

The Northampton Housing Authority, which maintains public housing in the city, “currently has a preference for applicants who live or work in Northampton,” the report notes. “Because Northampton is 81% white, this policy inevitably favors white applicants over applicants of color.”

Housing Choice Vouchers, or Section 8 vouchers, help people afford housing through the private market. But the voucher alone may not be enough to cover rent in the city.

“They put caps on how much rent you can actually pay and that they will cover,” said Jennifer Dieringer, managing attorney at Community Legal Aid’s Northampton office. “In high opportunity cities like Northampton, it can be hard to find units to use it (the voucher) on because our rents are so high.”

Proposed solutions

Already, the city has made progress on housing access by changing the zoning to more easily allow for multifamily housing, the report said. The city also allows accessory dwelling units — a second small unit added to someone’s home — in all zones of the city.

“That’s huge,” said Catherine Ratté, a PVPC manager of environment and land-use section and project manager of the report.

Ratté said the city has enacted zoning changes to allow density and encouraged development downtown by not requiring parking in that zone. And a 3% community impact fee from professionally managed short-term rentals will be put toward affordable housing projects, the report said.

A number of solutions are also presented.

“Many of the recommended solutions would require a longer-term approach and will require increased affordable housing funding from the federal and state government, while some are potentially achievable in the short-term,” a statement from the mayor’s office and the Housing Partnership reads.

Future suggested solutions include continuing to build affordable housing, increasing public transportation, looking into getting funding for a stronger lead paint remediation program, and educating tenants about their rights and landlords about their responsibilities.

The report also suggested that the Housing Authority remove its residency preferences.

“I think that it’s an important conversation to have with the Housing Authority,” Weir said.

He also said the Housing Partnership wants to better educate landlords about issues like Section 8 vouchers in workshops that the partnership hosts.

The report was not surprising to Weir, but it did clarify some of the issues he and partnership members saw.

“Now we’ve got more data,” he said. “I think we’re ready to move forward on wherever we can find partners on these issues.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettnet.com.




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