The Town of Amherst Fall Housing Forum took place at the Unitarian Universalist Society on Monday, November 4. The theme was Affordable Housing in Amherst: Opportunities for Growth. The League of Women Voters, the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust (AMAHT), the Unitarian Universalist Society of Amherst and the Amherst Coalition for Affordable Housing were the main sponsors, but many other local and state organizations and the town government also contributed. About 50 people attended.
After an introduction by Rebecca Fricke, president of the League of Women Voters, Town Manager Paul Bockelman reviewed what Amherst has accomplished toward improving access to affordable housing in Amherst. He pointed out that Amherst has had greater than the suggested 10 percent of affordable housing for the last 30 years, but there is still a great need. More than $8 million has been invested in affordable housing since 2010 and over $2 million in tax incentives have been given for new construction.
There is an ongoing exploration of 40R overlay districts which allow more dense housing in certain parts of town, as long as affordable units are included. Recent additions to Amherst’s affordable housing stock include 26 units at North Square, four on University Drive, and five Habitat for Humanity houses. The Valley Community Development Corporation has helped four first-time homebuyers acquire housing. Forty-two affordable units in Rolling Green were preserved. The town has supported a proposal by Valley Community Development Corporation to build 28 affordable studio apartments on Northampton Road and is supporting converting the East Street School to apartments.
But Bockelman cautioned that there is a lot of competition for local tax dollars, and the town must evaluate what it can afford to support in light of the many needs for capital projects, infrastructure, and staffing.
John Hornik, chair of the AMAHT spoke of the need for an affordable housing policy for the town. Fifty-seven percent of renters spend over 30 per cent of their income on housing, he said. The University of Massachusetts has grown over the past 20 years, but on-campus housing has not kept pace. Hornik said there are almost 17,000 UMass students who must find off-campus housing because of a lack of available beds on campus. This high demand for off-campus housing drives up rental prices and home prices. The vacancy rate in Amherst is less than three per cent. In order to confront these issues, the Housing Trust has proposed creation of 250 additional affordable units over the next five years.
The keynote for the evening was a presentation by State Representative Mindy Domb and State Senator Jo Comerford on pending housing legislation and budget items at the state level. Domb and Comerford stated that housing is a priority on the state level. There has been a 10 per cent increase in state subsidies to housing authorities and nonprofits that deal with housing. An additional $24 million has gone to voucher programs and programs to create housing for extremely low income people and to help prevent homelessness in vulnerable populations.
A proposed excise tax increase from $4.56 to $9.12 per $1000 on luxury housing should produce $350 million annually with 50 percent going to climate mitigation and 50 per cent to affordable housing.
Domb said she is very excited about a bill guaranteeing the right to counsel for those facing eviction, since, as of now, 92 percent of those threatened with eviction have no attorney to represent them. Another bill proposed is the HOMES bill, which will seal eviction records after three years. Many families, and even the children of families, have difficulty finding housing many years after facing eviction, regardless of the outcome.
Both Domb and Comerford urged concerned citizens to write to them to advocate for issues important to them. To be most effective, writers should refer to items by line item, and copy in local representatives when writing to committees. It helps if representatives can quote constituents when advocating for legislation. In order to track bills through the legislature, see www.malegislature.gov, which lists all pending legislation.
Participants at the forum divided into four groups to discuss: a) how a town housing policy can promote the development of new affordable housing in Amherst; b) how to influence housing change through legislative action; c) what can be done to address homelessness and support the Amherst seasonal shelter; and d) how to improve access to rentals.
Summaries of the small group findings were presented at the end of the meeting. They included zoning changes to allow more density of housing and encouraging affordable units in developments, supporting Craig’s Doors shelter and resource center with more volunteers, involving the University in providing more housing and in listing available housing in a central source, and supporting rent control bills to decrease incentives to convert single family homes to rentals.
Participants at the forum expressed hope that the ideas generated will be used to develop a comprehensive housing policy for the town.