Editorial: At Town Meeting, residents can vote for a more affordable, inclusive Williamstown

Editorial Board

At this year’s Town Meeting on Tuesday, May 16, Williamstown voters will decide whether to approve a set of reforms that would allow for an increase in the Town’s housing supply, helping to alleviate upward pressures on the cost of living and accommodate more residents. Two warrant articles would make it easier to construct three-unit and four-unit homes in the Town’s General Residence district. A third article would reduce frontage requirements — which mandate a minimum width for lots — within the General Residence district, allowing for more lots to be subdivided. A fourth would legalize manufactured housing, including mobile homes, in places where site-built homes are already permitted. By approving these four reforms, voters can remove barriers to the production of more affordable housing — quite literally making it legal for more people to live and work in Williamstown.

If implemented, these reforms would benefit future students, staff, professors, and other members of our community over time. Legalizing a broader range of housing would make progress toward our shared ideals of economic and racial equality.

Past reporting in the Record has shed light on the negative impacts that a shortage of affordable housing has had on the Town’s past, current, and potential residents. From the near-insurmountable barriers faced by displaced residents of the Spruces Mobile Home park to the competitive housing lotteries in which College faculty compete, scarcity and cost have limited who is able to live and work here. Separately, Record op-ed contributors have drawn attention to the consequences of blocking the construction of affordable housing and the benefits of removing such obstacles via zoning reform. 

Given the existence of racial wealth and income gaps, the fact that exclusionary zoning results in scarcer and more expensive housing means the issues of economic justice implicated in this discussion are also issues of racial justice — a fact borne out by the historical use of single-family zoning as a facially race-neutral way to keep neighborhoods white.

Some may worry that the proposed reforms would change Williamstown’s residential landscape for the worse by allowing for the large-scale construction of new homes, thus altering Williamstown’s rural character. However, by permitting increased density, these reforms would help mitigate sprawl, as property owners would gain the right to accommodate more homes within already-populated buildings and areas if they wish.

While these reforms may seem novel for Williamstown, they have been adopted in similar and neighboring communities. In Vermont, lawmakers have moved to allow denser housing development, particularly in locations served by water and sewer infrastructure. While more far-reaching than the proposals on the Williamstown ballot, the city of Minneapolis and the state of California have made incremental progress allowing for more housing supply by ending single-family zoning. 

As students, we are especially cognizant of the fact that inclusive zoning can be a determining factor in where College faculty and staff are able to reside. Without their work, the place we are all lucky to study and live in would be nothing. Our town must be accessible not only to students, but also to the staff who maintain the high standards of our college, as well as to potential members of the Town community who hope to engage with all that Williamstown has to offer. 

We hope that Town voters and nonvoters alike recognize this opportunity to lay a foundation for a more affordable Williamstown. These incremental zoning reforms could change the character of our Town for the better.

This editorial represents the opinion of the majority of the Record editorial board.