Photo: Picserver.org, Creative Commons

“A Few Questions For…”  is an occasional feature of The Indy, aimed at helping our readers get to know the folks who are making things happen in our town. We’ll be featuring members of our town government, key town employees, people who lead civic organizations, activists, local educators, prominent volunteers, and residents who are not necessarily well known.  This week we present a conversation with Town Planners Christine Brestrup and Nate Malloy.  We had a basic question: What is the population of Amherst?

Population statistics are used for political reasons, federal and state funding, and, importantly, to justify or nix taxpayer-supported town projects.  But getting reasonably accurate population statistics is challenging here because we are so special: We’re a small town that hosts a large university and two small colleges. Our median age is just over 21.
Not even Hanover, New Hampshire (total population 11,485, college and graduate students 6,500, median age 23 years) is comparable. Nor is Burlington, Vermont (total population 42,239 population, college and graduate students about 12,100, median age just over 26.

We asked Christine Bestrup, director of the town Planning Department, and Nathaniel Malloy, senior planner here, for help. Their answers were combined and edited for clarity.

The Indy: What is the population of Amherst? The numbers seem malleable, depending on the desired outcome. (The Jones Library, for example, seems to include the entire college and graduate student enrollment in marketing its demolish/redesign/expand project.)

Brestrup and Malloy: We brought some printouts for you, which will help, including the 2018 Economic Report and the 2013 Housing Production Plan. The Housing Subcommittee of the University–Town of Amherst Collaborative, UTAC, is good, too. Most estimates of the population of Amherst are based on the last census, which was in 2010 and gives about 38,000 as the total population. It’s probably a little more now, maybe 40,000.

Does that include the UMass, Amherst, and Hampshire college students who live in Amherst? According to the 2013 housing document, 59.4 percent of Amherst residents are UMass, Amherst, and Hampshire college students.

Yes, they are included in it if they formally declared their residence to be Amherst in the last U.S. Census. Based on the data, there could be something like 15,000 to 20,000 students who made that declaration.

Do you have any idea of the breakdown between undergraduate and graduate students who declare Amherst their residence—I imagine graduate students are more likely to stay longer, maybe raise families here and develop long-term commitments to the town.

No, we don’t have a breakdown of that, and even UMass isn’t very sure about what those numbers are. You might be able to get some information from the UMass Campus Planning Department, more hard numbers about how many students are there and how they are categorized. The UMass data center might have a synopsis of the student population. The Housing Trust might have some answers. There are so many ways to look at the numbers.

How many people or businesses pay property taxes here, contributing to the costs of running the town?

You can get the number of parcels that taxes are paid on from the assessor’s office—that’s a real number. They could help with how many tax-paying owners there are, too.

We have 9,000 something dwelling units, maybe 9,621. That includes houses, whether it’s one-bedroom, four-bedroom, and so on. And duplexes. There are several other categories. Apartment buildings are taxed differently than houses. They don’t pay based on the value of the building and land. They pay based on the income that the owner gets from the rental units. I think there are about 1,200 rental permits issued every year. But an apartment complex only submits one rental permit!

Generally speaking, it’s about 50 percent renters and 46 percent owners, I think, in housing units here.

It’s complicated. Does the number of dwelling units include dorms?

No, dorms are different. And then, how many students live off-campus, how many live off-campus right in Amherst, how many live in Amherst in their family homes? It’s hard to know who’s living where. I don’t think anyone keeps track of whether a house or apartment is rented to a student. Actually, it might be illegal due to anti-discrimination laws. It could be rented to a retired person. A young family. The Donahue Institute might also be helpful in sorting this out. Some people write their occupation when they register to vote, which would be the Town Clerk’s office. Voting lists are difficult because people move away and don’t change their voter registration or move here and don’t change it from the last place they registered. Excise tax forms could be helpful. We rely on the U.S. Census, but people have to fill out the census form, and not everyone does that. Springfield is making a big effort to get everyone to fill out the 2020 census because there is concern that the city could lose federal funding based on population.

If we try to determine population from housing units, and if we have 9,621 dwelling units, and if we assume there are three people living in each unit, that would be 27,000. If you say two people live in each unit, that’s 18,000.

When you were studying this sort of thing, did you have classes about college towns per se? I don’t mean cities that also host a college or university.

No, the courses looked at planning in general.

Do you work with colleagues from college towns? Share experiences, talk about challenges?

Mostly we share articles, read materials from towns and cities like Ann Arbor or Burlington that are facing certain problems that we face. We’re constantly reading about this, how is Berkeley doing with their housing issues? But I wouldn’t say I’ve talked to planners from college towns very frequently. Just once in a while. It’s hard to find a match with Amherst. When consultants are hired here, such as for an open space plan, or a housing, or parking ,or recreation plan…we usually ask them to try to find comparable towns…but [they don’t seem to be able to do it].

Do you happen to know what our homeless population is?

The state does a point-in-time survey every January, but that’s just one count. In January, it might have come to 15 or 20. Craig’s Doors has said it has about 200 unique individuals who come through the shelter during the shelter season, maybe 150 to 250 different people.

OK, what population numbers are you using when you try to plan for the future…five years, ten years from now? And for the present?

We do use the census numbers and we have some numbers from various reports. And recent trends are showing a decline in population in the Northeast and a loss of school-aged children and families. We know we don’t have enough housing for all the people who’d be eligible for affordable housing here. We’ve been doing really well in the last few years, building up our numbers of affordable housing units—we’re doing much better than most cities and towns in the Commonwealth. And we know we need more housing.

Who do we need more housing for?

Well, people who’d like to live here but can’t find housing. We have an aging population, so…for instance, there are baby boomers who raised their families here and now they’re staying here, in their houses, aging in place. Four or five people used to live in their house, now one or two people live there…so we might need more housing for young families. It’s just not an exact science. In some ways, it’s kind of an art. 

Wouldn’t you love to have a brilliant mathematician who figures all of this out and helps us figure out what our population is? Thank you for letting me interview you for the Indy, and thank you for being so forthcoming. Next time, I’ll ask the other 999 questions I have for you.

* * *

For the record

The non-student population of Amherst (including children) could be about 18,300


All residents: 40,000

Resident college and graduate students:  21,700

on-campus, 16,700

off-campus in Amherst, 5,000

Extrapolated from: Town of Amherst Economic Development Plan, Task 1: Identification of Local Economic Indicators Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, June 22, 2018

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  1. Ah, the elusive population question!
    In February 2018, I asked the Collections Department how many taxed parcels there were in Amherst, to try to get an idea of how many people were contributing to the Town’s revenues via property taxes. The answer at that time was 7303 parcels. That included parcels with structures and parcels of land without buildings. That seemed like a very low number to me.

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