One of the goals specified in the 2010 Amherst Master Plan is “to preserve and expand the number of affordable and moderately priced rental units and housing stock” (Objective H2). But today, in several areas of town, such as North Amherst and the Orchard Valley and Carriage Lane parts of South Amherst, the moderately priced homes are being purchased by investors and converted to rentals for undergraduate students. The ongoing conversions provided the basis for a robust discussion at the October 1 District 5 meeting, which was held as a Zoom webinar.
Orchard Valley was created in the early 1970s as a subdivision of starter homes. Many of the original owners stayed and are now putting their homes on the market, leaving the neighborhood open to investors rather than people who want to live there. About eight homes in the Orchard Valley neighborhood have been sold to investors in recent months and one-third of the homes in the Carriage Road area are now rented to students. Since these are some of the most affordable houses in Amherst, there is concern that this trend will result in young families having even fewer opportunities for home ownership in town.
Students Pressure Housing Market
John Hornik, Chair of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust (AMAHT), pointed out that last year UMass had 15,000 more students enrolled than it could house on campus. This number has been rising over the past decade and has resulted in added pressure on the rental market in Amherst. With the conversion of single family homes to rentals, there are now about 800 fewer families in Amherst and more than 1,000 fewer children in the schools.
Although no one at the meeting complained about the student renters, participants noted that they do displace families. Also, as Penny Rhodes expressed, investors and renters do not have the same commitment to the neighborhood as homeowners. Amherst has a Zoning Bylaw which limits the number of unrelated persons to four per dwelling, but this is rarely enforced. According to Town Planner Chris Brestrup, past attempts at prohibiting rentals of single family homes by zoning have run into opposition by faculty who want to rent their homes when they go on sabbatical.
Several suggestions were made by participants. Planning Board member Janet McGowan said that Somerville has a differential tax rate for owner occupied homes than for investment properties or rentals. This is legal, but the higher taxes could be passed on to the tenants. Joyce Hatch noted that one of the barriers to home ownership in Amherst is the high tax rate, and said that Town government should be careful about proposals that increase taxes. Councilor Andy Steinberg (At large) said that Amherst has a very small percentage of commercial properties and his fear is that raising taxes on non-residential properties could cause some businesses to leave.
As Hornik pointed out, Amherst needs more housing of all kinds, rental and ownership. Tom Johnson suggested building housing at Hickory Ridge, but much of that land is wetlands, so only a few houses can be constructed. Heather Hornik said that UMass needs to take more initiative in providing housing for its students.
District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont pointed out that converting single family homes into rentals differentially affects neighborhoods with modestly priced homes. Areas with larger homes are able to maintain their neighborhood feel. To this, Adrienne Terizzi encouraged residents to get to know their neighbors and to know when someone was planning to sell their home in order to encourage them to consider the character of the neighborhood when selling. Also, as John Hornik pointed out, there are programs through Amherst Community Land Trust and the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust to help first-time homebuyers with a mortgage. These are administered by Valley Community Development Corporation. Penny Rhodes suggested letting Realtors in town know that these programs exist, so that they can inform potential buyers and encourage eligible households to apply.
In the end, the Councilors present at the meeting agreed to bring this discussion before the full Council and to consider it when formulating the new zoning bylaw. This is a complex problem, and, as Zoe Crabtree pointed out, attempts to remedy it must take care not to unintentionally harm households that do not fit traditional views of what constitutes a family.