JUST IN CASE YOU MISSED IT, HERE IS AN EXCELLENT EDITORIAL. My comments follow.
“Amherst Must Seek Housing Balance” by Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (October 27, 2023), was then reprinted in the Amherst Indy (Oct 29, 2023). The article is well researched, filled with relevant facts, and shows a keen awareness of cause and effect. Taub and Rooney, incumbent Amherst Town Councilors, are up for reelection.Opinion > ColumnsJennifer Taub and Pam Rooney: Amherst must seek housing balance
Published: 10/27/2023 4:20:26 PM
We envision for Amherst the energy of a robust student population in a healthy balance with a diverse population of year-round residents. Is this a vision shared by all?
Perhaps not. Advocates for more on-campus housing are countered by one key factor. Besides our institutions of higher learning, the business of Amherst is student housing. It has been suggested by property managers in town that if UMass were to house substantially more students on campus, there would be a large impact on the economy of Amherst, as there is little industry/economy outside of housing and real estate.
Perhaps naive on our part, but we hadn’t connected the dots — that for some, more on-campus housing is not good for business — it translates to fewer “customers” for off-campus rental properties. The university can continue to benefit from enrollment growth when private developers build and house their students. Town government will continue to provide services and maintain infrastructure, whether Amherst is a town with a 60:40, 80:20, or even 90:10 ratio of students to non-students. The only constituency that has a stake in maintaining a robust year-round population is us — the year-round residents of Amherst.
The 2020 U.S. Census revealed that Amherst’s non-student population declined over the previous 10 years. In fact, it’s been steadily declining since 1990.
A Lincoln Institute of Land Policy article from Aug. 10 states that “in Amherst, where nearly 60 percent of the town’s 39,000 residents are students … young families have had a harder time finding an affordable place to live: despite a rising [student] population, the number of adults aged 25–44 plunged by 45 percent between 1990 and 2010.”
This demographic trend is reflected in our declining K-12 enrollment. Since 2005, Amherst Regional Middle School enrollment declined by 39% and the high school’s by 36%. A 2018 Amherst School Committee Enrollment Working Group report concluded that “Amherst has less ‘family-friendly’ housing than we once did.” The report specifically cited “former family housing being converted to rental housing for students” as a contributing factor to our schools’ declining enrollment.
Amherst is a town of approximately 17,000 non-student residents. Although UMass houses about 14,000 students on campus, each year over 12,000 students who are unable to secure on-campus accommodations must find housing in Amherst and surrounding communities.
In a town as small as ours, the thousands of students who are forced, each year, to secure off-campus accommodations place enormous strain on the local housing market. Fewer homes are left available for year-round residents, including university staff.
The incentives to build housing to rent to students — at up to $1,000 or more per bed per month — results in little to no privately financed building construction for non-student households. Developers are up front that their business model is not to build condominiums at a healthy, one-time profit, but to build luxury student rental housing that reaps rewards year in and year out.
Since 2015, Amherst has permitted 862 new housing units (mostly for students), only 82 of which are single-family homes. During this same time, absentee investors have continued to purchase single-family homes and convert them to group rental houses. Several current town councilors have called for an increase in the number of unrelated individuals permitted to rent a single dwelling unit, which allows for an even greater monthly return on investment. The Town Council should prioritize maintaining a healthy, sustainable balance between our year-round and student residents, even if that means advocating for not increasing per-unit occupancy, and for UMass to house more of its students on campus and “right-size” its enrollment in the face of a declining college-age population. The university could also enhance our year-round population through strong support of attainable housing for the thousands of faculty and staff currently unable to live in Amherst — prime customers for affordable and in-town housing.
Our town’s changing demographic is a vitally important lens through which Town Council policies and decisions should be evaluated — we should ask whether a particular decision helps to reverse the trend of a declining non-student population or exacerbate it. Let’s strive to be a town in balance, where those who work at UMass Amherst can afford to live in Amherst.
Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney are Amherst town councilors.
I totally support Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney to be elected to Amherst Town Council this November for the new District 4.
THE FUTURE DEPENDS ON IT!!
The following remarks belong to me, Dorothy Pam, in response to the above article, so don’t blame them if you don’t like them.
Taub and Rooney make the case that the future of Amherst lies in providing the housing that is needed for a diverse group of year-round residents—people who want to live where they work –from professors to staff at all levels, business owners and workers, single people, young couples, retirees, and young families with children. The Town of Amherst is spending huge amounts of money on a new elementary school and a refurbished and enhanced Jones Library, all while the number of year-round residents who use those facilities, has been plummeting. If they can’t afford to buy a modest house, or find a reasonable rent, these incentives will go to waste. It may be that it is the job of business to seize the moment and make as much money as one can when the conditions are ripe. HARDLY A DAY GOES BY WITHOUT ONE OR MORE CALLS TO OUR HOUSE PHONE LINE FROM COMPLETE STRANGERS WHO DO NOT IDENTIFY THEMSELVES, OFFERING CASH TO BUY OUR HOUSE. THAT’S WHAT BLOCK BUSTERS DO. ARE WE IN THE MIDST OF THE KIND OF PANICKED TURNOVER THAT DETROYED MANY OLD NEIGHBORHOODS IN NEW YORK CITY? IF YOU SELL YOUR HOUSE CAN YOU EVEN TRUST THAT PEOPLE WHO SAY THEY ARE BUYING IT ARE THE REAL FUTURE OWNERS?
But the Town of Amherst should have different goals, long term goals, that take its mission and its history into account. Some people love to say that the business of Amherst is UMass and housing students, but that is such a deceptive phrase that tries to hide individual profit making as serving student needs. Students and their parents are being gouged by over-the-top rents for very little. Many parents are appalled at the size of the rent and/or the deterioration of some of the buildings. They are not happy!
Acknowledging the great role that educational institutions play in this town is a whole different conversation, one that talks of supporting those who care about making sure that Amherst is a thriving town that supports the University by being a historic small town where faculty and staff can afford to live, that is friendly and safe for students to shop, eat out, and just hang out for a change from the campus.
The proper task of Town government is to create and run a town that values and supports its year-round residents who care enough about the town to serve on its many committees–a place where families, students, homeowners, renters, retirees, people with different backgrounds and talents come together to create a living community. Then as in successful college towns, students will come back to live here full time; their parents might move here to retire, having been entranced by the town on their visits to their children in college.
We must look to the future when we will face the “demographic cliff” and the number of students of college age has dwindled and many students choose not to go to college in order to avoid a life time of educational debt. The best way to continue to attract dedicated and diverse residents is to be the city called the Town of Amherst that draws its college students back to live here full time because they fell in love with the town when they were here for their college years.
Dorothy S. Pam