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‘Please stand with us in our fight for affordable housing’

Published: 1/24/2020 10:12:34 AM
Modified: 1/24/2020 10:12:23 AM

The August 2018 encampment on the Greenfield Town Common brought national attention to the plight of our area’s homeless. The Greenfield Affordable Housing Project (GAHP), an ad-hoc committee formed by then-City Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud in response to the encampment, spent 2019 studying the problem of housing affordability in Greenfield, and recently issued a report. In response to their findings, we have proposed a set of zoning reforms that we consider necessary first steps towards addressing the city’s affordable housing crisis.

American zoning developed in the 1920s to effectively serve two purposes: to isolate noxious industry from residential areas, and to exclude immigrants, poor people, and anyone who wasn’t white from affluent areas. Minimum lot size and setback requirements were tools to inflate housing costs beyond the means of whichever social classes were deemed undesirable at the time, while minimum parking requirements were one factor among many to enable suburban sprawl at the expense of walkable downtowns. Later on, restrictive definitions of ‘family’ enabled advocates of the nuclear family to privilege their way of life at the expense of all others. Discrimination was not a side effect of Euclidean zoning; it was an implicit or even explicit goal.

To this day, setback requirements, minimum lot sizes, and parking regulations out of proportion with historical building patterns in the residential core prevail in Greenfield. These features in our zoning can obligate housing that only the affluent can afford while forbidding the kinds of compact, vibrant, walkable neighborhoods characteristic of a small New England town. Trends like falling birth rates, seniors with longer lifespans aging in place, and a widespread preference for living alone have resulted in a mismatch between Greenfield’s housing stock and its demographics. As the number of residents has stabilized around 1950 levels, roughly the same number of homes house fewer and fewer people, an inefficient use of space mandated by outdated zoning.

Our proposed amendments answer recommendations put forth by GAHP, FRCOG’s Greenfield Housing Study, and the 2014 Sustainable Greenfield Master Plan. They include the following zone changes:

1) To support the master plan’s goal to “expand options to live in walkable neighborhoods”, we propose allowing three-family housing and accessory dwelling units (ADU) by right in most zones. Our changes also harmonize regulatory differences between ADUs and multi-family homes, to remove some of the administrative barriers previously associated with ADUs.

2) In response to GAHP’s call for “reduced minimum lot sizes, reduced set-back requirements, and other zoning relief measures,” we propose lowering dimensional requirements in the urban core to allow denser housing on smaller lots. It realigns the Urban Residential district toward its stated purpose to “provide areas for high-density residential development,” and proposes the same in the Semi-Residential district.

3) In accordance with urban planning best practices, GAHP’s recommendation, and the master plan’s call to “revamp parking policy to complement the Town’s vision of a pedestrian- and environmentally- friendly community,” we propose to greatly reduce or eliminate parking minimums, and instead let changing markets decide how much parking is appropriate.

4) In response to GAHP’s suggestion to consider “changing the definition of ‘family’ from not more than four-unrelated individuals to any number of individuals living and cooking together,” we propose a new definition, Single Housekeeping Unit. This change is also in line with the master plan’s call to “ensure housing units and neighborhoods adapt to meet changing needs.”

Traditional neighborhood development is a matter of common sense. Rather than regulate uses and cohorts that a minority of residents object to, let’s zone for qualities and places that a majority love. Outdated or unjust restrictions have no place. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan so eloquently put it, “if the constitutional conception of ‘equal protection of the law’ means anything, it must at the very least mean that a bare desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest.”

We believe in Greenfield, its neighborhoods, and our neighbors. Because we wake up every day to continue work started by those who came before us, we believe in progress, that fundamentally human idea of leaving the world better than we found it. Please stand with us in our fight for affordable housing by writing the mayor, City Council, and Planning Board in support of these changes.

The complete text of the proposed zoning amendments is available at

Tim Dolan is a reference librarian at Greenfield Community College, co-owner of Ice Cream Alley, and Greenfield City Councilor for Precinct 5. Otis Wheeler is vice president of the Greenfield City Council, president of the Downtown Greenfield Neighborhood Association, and station manager of two public access television stations.

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