Letter: In College Towns, Zoning Changes Supporting Densification Usually Proliferate Student Rentals

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“Town Councilor Steve Schreiber of High Street, though not an abutter and speaking for himself, not as an elected official, said that allowing this conversion is spot zoning and that densification of neighborhoods leads to deterioration — ironic in that he voted in the affirmative for zoning changes that encourage densification in neighborhoods at the Town Council meeting three nights before this hearing.” (Amherst Indy, January 7, 2021)

Exactly what my neighbors and I have, for years, been expressing during public comment before Town Council and Planning Board members. In a college town like Amherst, zoning changes supporting densification usually result in the proliferation of student rentals, which do tear at the  fabric of residential neighborhoods that have long been home to seniors, families, university faculty and administrators, and other year-round members of our community.

Many on Amherst Town Council dismissed the dozens of constituent letters received prior to its January 4th meeting as nothing more than “fear of change.” In the RG neighborhood between UMass and downtown, the change we fear isn’t change at all – it has long been with us and we simply seek not to have it become the norm.

For more than 10 years, the two in-fill houses on the tiny lot on the other side of our backyard fence have been rented to eight students (four per dwelling). Fronting on Cosby Street, the property is owned and operated by a commercial management company — and is in pretty shoddy condition. These in-fill dwellings have never been – nor will they ever provide – affordable housing for seniors and families. At ~$800 per month per student, the landlord likely generates ~$6400 per month from these small houses. Why would the owner rent to a family or retired couple at ~$2,000 per month per house, when he can get ~$3200 per month, per house by    renting to students?

We chose to live in an old house near Town and, like many others, have learned to accept that a few times a year the police will be called to break up a party that’s gotten out of hand. As often as not, calls to the Amherst Police or Fire Department are in the interest of the students’ safety as much as restoring calm to the neighborhood. The one time I contacted the Amherst police, there were about 200 students on the small parcel that sits roughly 50-75 feet from my back door.

Several students were packed onto a small 2nd floor balcony. Fearful that it could collapse, the  police were summoned for the safety of all involved.

The situation that’s just reaching Strong Street has for years threatened the neighborhood between UMass and town. We welcome families and seniors of all races, creeds, ethnicities, and religions seeking affordable and market-rate housing. But we know all too well that landlords are  not in the affordable housing business; zoning changes that encourage infill and additional units on single family lots, will result in more student rentals. Amherst is a college town and that’s the simple economics of it all.

What my neighbors and I do ask is that Town Councilors and Planning Board members not  impose on our neighborhood the problems they object to in their own.

Jennifer Taub is Chair Of The Local Historical District Commission

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3 thoughts on “Letter: In College Towns, Zoning Changes Supporting Densification Usually Proliferate Student Rentals

  1. As a 28 year resident of Strong Street, I know that the intersection of Strong Street and East Pleasant Street is already a mess. It is especially a huge clog when school begins and ends, as the entrance to Wildwood School is right there. And in the future, that entrance might very well also serve the rebuilt Fort River School, next to Wildwood School. To turn a garage into an apartment for 2 more humans (whether students or any other kind of human) lacks foresight, lacks connecting the dots, lacks regard for preserving liveability.

    Zoning is what prevents person A from swinging their arms in a way that hits person B in the nose. One should not be fiddling with bylaws if you don’t respect that.

    PS: I am not speaking as a person scared of change. I am speaking as a person scared of poor planning.

  2. Jennifer, read Ira’s other letter and my comment. If there is no enforcement of packing apartments with students it makes the problem very hard to solve. Note also my point about owner occupancy. I am not optimistic in convincing the Town Council, CRC or the Planning Board that an owner occupancy requirement could solve a plethora of problems, but I believe it does. You perhaps know of Rolf Carlstrom’s housing study of about ten years ago that lead to our current Rental Registration system that has been quite effective in reducing problem housing, but regulations, restrictions and enforcement need to be much stronger. Rolf’s data also showed that owner occupied rental houses are never a problem. It seems the wealth of our community is going to a small number of profit making individual or agencies. Owner occupancy send the profit to an Amherst resident and potentially a low or moderate income family. This still adds to our tax base and provides housing both for students and others.

    Another potential tool for solving problems, that we ALL agree are problem affordability, diversity and community, is the Amherst Community Land Trust which removes the profiteering from housing altogether. We all need to support that effort personally and financially. Bob Greeney

  3. I lived in the red cottage-style house at the corner of Cosby Avenue and Paige Street for 22 years. When I put it on the market in 1993, I stipulated that
    I wouldn’t sell to a landlord, although several investors were interested. My well-meaning realtor advised me that, since I was so close to campus,
    those were likely to be my best offers. Until a couple moving from Palo Alto came along and snapped it up for the full asking price.

    Flash forward 28 years: I naively suggested to a friend on Sunset Avenue that homeowners could just say no to unwanted buyers. Sighing, she
    explained that the offers were so juicy that, combined with rentals already encroaching on the neighborhood, sellers almost had to be crazy not
    to accept them. Even a neighbor who had been very supportive of the North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Historic District effort couldn’t resist and,
    after selling his house to an investor, literally moved in the dark of night!

    As in any market, prices are determined by what buyers are willing to offer and sellers are willing to accept. Supporting the Community Land Trust can be part of solution, since it shields housing units from market forces.

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