Affordable Housing Experts Respond To Town’s Comprehensive Housing Plan Draft

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By Art and Maura Keene

The Community Resources Committee of the Town Council (CRC) has been working to formulate a comprehensive housing policy for Amherst for the past six months. The latest draft is a 13-page document (available here). 

The CRC discussed the policy at a joint meeting with the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust (AMAHT) on May 13, but neither minutes nor video for this meeting are yet available.

The CRC Housing policy was developed with little input from groups involved in housing in Amherst, such as the AMAHT and Amherst Community Land Trust (ACLT). In response to the draft, the ACLT and AMAHT raised several concerns and criticized the low priority given to creating affordable housing and the lack of specific credible plans for doing so.  The Planning Board has not discussed the draft policy in detail. An initial ACLT response to the draft is presented below following a summary of their recommendations. 

Summary of Amherst Community Land Trust Concerns And Recommendations
The draft housing policy lists only lofty social goals in its first two pages, followed by pages of strategies that are clearly there to incentivize the kind of development that expands the tax base. Why not acknowledge frankly the challenge it poses to meet both our social goals and our economic needs?  That would invite more creative thinking about possible models and honest responses as the discussion continues. Strategies could then be evaluated and prioritized according to their contribution to all the drivers established in the overview.

Recommendations

  1. Prioritize Affordable Housing – Developing good strategies for achieving the needed funding for affordable housing should arguably be the first priority in the plan. Revise the recommendation to raise support for providing affordable housing in general, and affordable home ownership in particular, from the current rating as lowest priority to the highest priority level.
  2. Pay Attention To Demographics. The draft’s goal “to create economically diverse neighborhoods that meet the needs of all populations” also absolutely requires careful attention to strategies and tactics that will support homeownership that is within reach of young families whose breadwinners are employed in Amherst.   Hence, the demographics of Amherst need to be characterized more precisely than is apparent in the draft plan.
  3. Explicitly Address Challenges That Accompany Infill.  We already know that policies that simply encourage the development of residential neighborhood space for rental housing are a setup for both behavioral problems from “party houses” and rents that put that housing totally out of reach of families and the local workforce.  We strongly urge that the document clearly name that challenge to set the stage for strategies and tactics that achieve both the goals of providing an adequate housing inventory and making that inventory inclusive and family- and workforce-friendly.
  4. Infill In Residential Neighborhoods Should Require Owner Occupancy. For infill in existing residential neighborhoods there should be a requirement for owner occupancy of at least one unit in any duplex or triplex development, and residential onsite supervision in any larger development, analogous to the current requirement for owner occupancy in conversion of a single-family home to multifamily
  5. Design Standards – should include specific standards that will help maintain residential neighborhoods that continue to attract long-term residents
  6. Require Inclusionary Zoning Provisions in all projects including those eligible for site plan review, not just those that apply for special permits. 
  7. Remove The High Priority Proposal To iImpose A Cost Per Unit Maximum $100,000 Ceiling For Town Subsidies For Affordable Home Ownership. Even before the current sharp rise in housing prices, ACLT needed to tap multiple resources, well in excess of this amount, to make home ownership reachable for families earning less than 80% of area median income, which includes many town and UMass employees such as teachers, researchers, public safety, administrative and service employees. Other organizations’ programs have had the same experience. If we are serious about supporting “improved access to homeownership, especially among low-income residents, Black, indigenous, and people of color,” we shouldn’t tie our hands with arbitrary limits that don’t fit the reality of our market. 
  8. Be explicit Early In The Document About The Economic Challenges That Underlie Any Proposed Policy. There is a measure of incongruence between the lofty goals in the plan overview, and the areas addressed in the most detail in later pages and the priorities and measurables set.  We are all aware that Amherst needs to find opportunities to increase revenue without exacerbating its already high real estate tax rate. The tax rate is high because we have a high fraction of tax-exempt land and a population with a strong commitment to excellent schools and public services.  

AMAHT Concerns And Recommendations
These recommendations are abstracted from a draft written by AMAHT Chair John Hornik.  Hornik has been raising concerns about the CRC’s plan for some time, noting CRC’s failure to seek or accept public input, their nominal attention to strategies for creating affordable housing and their failure to cite data and research in support of their proposed policies.  Hornik observes that “there is no use of data to illustrate or explain the problems that the policy is meant to address or to set the baseline for the various objectives set out in the draft. While there is a plethora of relevant data available from regional, state and national sources, no attempt has been made to incorporate information of this type in the document.” He acknowledges that “there are many strengths to the draft…but the fact that it gives such short shrift to affordable housing is a major weakness.  Another general weakness is that while many ideas are mentioned, none are presented with much depth or with supporting data.” He said he urges the CRC to correct these very significant problems before sending this policy to the Town Council for their approval.

Complete ACLT Response To The Town’s Draft Comprehensive Housing PolicyThe Amherst Community Land Trust applauds the creation of a Comprehensive Housing Policy and strongly agrees with the core guiding principles as they are framed in pages 1 -2 of the draft of 2021-03-13. 

We recommend two significant modifications to the context setting overview on page 1 -2.  Our recommendations reflect the underlying philosophical points already there more graphically, and pave the way for shifts in priorities and for the addition of specific tools for achieving a broad and inclusive spectrum of housing options.

One – Characterize the demographics of Amherst precisely.
To characterize Amherst’s population as “relatively young,” as is quoted from the Master Plan, misses an opportunity to capture one of our present core challenges.  Our population is in fact strikingly bi-modal, with a very large peak in the census data between the ages of 15-24, reflecting the large number of transient college students who are counted as Amherst residents, and a broad spread across the older age brackets peaking slightly at 45 – 54 years.  We no longer have a normal fraction of young families.  In the first two decades of the 21st century the population of school age children in Amherst dropped by a startling 27%.  That age group is shrinking nationally and more so in New England than in the South and West, but the drop in Hampshire County overall was 5%.  It seems reasonable to interpret the very large discrepancy between Amherst and the countywide figure as a direct result of the cost of settling a young family in Amherst.

In the most recent half decade, market forces have severely exacerbated that trend. Whole neighborhoods that were designed in earlier decades to provide for this demographic have moved entirely out of the reach of households living on the salaries offered to many workers early in their careers.  At the present moment there are no single family homes offered for sale in Amherst for less than $250,000.  To put that in perspective, consider the economic advice given to buyers, and effectively enforced by the necessity of convincing a lender that you can carry the needed mortgage: You need to look within a price point not more than 2.5 times your annual household gross income.  In current market conditions that would be an annual household income of $100,000.   Note that this is 122% of the estimated FY2021 HUD AMI for Amherst.   Realistically the need would be more like $120,000 – $160,000 as the more common prices on the market now are between $300,000 and $400,000.  Even for a family with two full time earners that is out of reach of a large fraction of the salaries of the town’s major employers, including the Town itself.

We focus on this point out of the same concern for the long term viability of Amherst as a place to live and work described in paragraph 3 on page 1.  The draft plan is correct to call attention to the need for providing housing for low and moderate income people, and correct that some of that need can be met by expanding the inventory of affordable rental housing.  The goal “to create economically diverse neighborhoods that meet the needs of all populations” also absolutely requires careful attention to strategies and tactics that will support homeownership that is within reach of young families whose breadwinners are employed in Amherst.  

Two – Address challenges that accompany infill.
We are also concerned that the arguments made for increasing the housing density in residential neighborhoods, and the strategies proposed to facilitate development in these areas fail to acknowledge both a quality of life issue with which Amherst has abundant experience, and the concern for economic diversity.  Put simply, we already know that policies that simply encourage the development of residential neighborhood space for rental housing are a set up for both behavioral problems from “party houses” and rents that put that housing totally out of reach of families and local workforce.  We strongly urge that the document frankly name that challenge in its overview, to set the stage for strategies and tactics that achieve both the goals of providing an adequate housing inventory and making that inventory inclusive and family- and workforce-friendly. 

There are strategies and tools that serve all our goals.  

While some of the strategies proposed, such as allowing smaller homes and duplex or triplex development, begin to address affordability and infill, there is not sufficient focus on what it will take to repurpose existing housing stock and make modest increases in density of use in residential neighborhoods in such a way as to both provide permanently affordable purchasing choices and stabilize them as family-friendly.   

The land trust model, in which the highly valuable asset of land is held in common and the homeowner owns only their dwelling is a powerful one for affordable homeownership. This model is well established nationally. One of the largest such enterprises in the US is our neighbor to the north, the Champlain Land Trust, formed from a recent merger between the Burlington Community Land Trust and the Lake Champlain Housing Development Corporation.  Its roots are in a University community with real estate pressures similar to Amherst’s. 

Its strength is an outgrowth of robust support for the concept by the city of Burlington under the leadership of Bernie Sanders as mayor in the early 1980’s.  Study of its now 40 year history will provide many examples of effective action by the city, and case studies of how the model can play out over a long time.  This is not an untried solution, on the contrary, careful study of Burlington’s use of the model may offer many useful strategies and tactics to Amherst.  The plan notes that Amherst has opportunities to acquire land suitable for development. We urge study of the land trust model for ways to retain ownership of the land or put it in a trust managed by residents.

Land trusts are typically structured to provide permanent affordability not only by continuing to hold the value of the land but by including a cap on the resale value of the home in the ground lease agreement that defines the relationship of the homeowner and the trust.  Allowed growth in resale prices can be tied to such indicators as the rise in Area Median Income over the period of ownership.  We recommend that permanent restrictions on affordability be attached to all projects supported from public funds whatever the underlying model of the project.

We are dismayed to see a low priority attached to identifying funding for affordable housing overall and for supporting affordable home ownership.   It will not be possible to achieve the social goals so carefully laid out in the preamble without robust attention to fund raising.  Amherst’s creation of Community Preservation Act funds speaks to its awareness of the need to commit public funds to the achievement of a healthy community.  More may be needed to achieve the goals laid out elsewhere in the plan.  Certainly every effort needs to be made to secure whatever state, federal, or philanthropic funds are available to support the development of affordable housing and healthy neighborhoods.  In fact, developing good strategies for achieving the needed funding should arguably be the first priority in the plan.

We find the focus on design standards a reassuring inclusion in the Comprehensive Housing Policy.  We propose these include specific standards that will help maintain residential neighborhoods that continue to attract long term residents.  As we contemplate the production of more large rental complexes, like One East Pleasant Street, we need much more specific standards that address the boundaries between such development and bordering family residential blocks.   Stepping down of building heights in the boundary zones, siting parking at the boundaries and requiring green space and landscaping sight and sound screens are important tools for gaining acceptance of new structures at very different scales from abutting smaller residences.  A further tool would be a focus on incentives for development of affordable units designed for family living rather than for dormitory style sharing. 

As a further tool for stabilizing long term ownership in family-friendly neighborhoods we recommend that for infill in existing residential neighborhoods there be a requirement for owner occupancy of at least one unit in any duplex or triplex development, and residential onsite supervision in any larger development, analogous to the current requirement for owner occupancy in conversion of a single-family home to multifamily.  We base this specific recommendation on a review of calls for police intervention.  A review of such calls in residential neighborhoods in which there are examples of rental houses in each category, that is, having or lacking owner occupancy, showed that 100% of the calls were for houses that were not owner occupied.  

Specific recommendations arising from Amherst Community Land Trust’s recent experience.
In addition to the more general recommendations we offer above, we recommend the following specific revisions to sections of the document, based on lessons learned from assisting first time homebuyer families with CPA funds granted to us over the last four years. 

  1. Revise the recommendation on the bottom of page 10 to raise support for providing affordable housing in general, and affordable home ownership in particular, from the current rating as lowest priority to the highest priority level.
  2. Require inclusionary zoning provisions in all projects including those eligible for site plan review, not just those that apply for special permits.  We are heartened to note that the CRC and the Planning Board recently voted unanimously to send the revised Inclusionary Zoning bylaw to the Town Council.
  3. Remove the High Priority proposal on page 9 (with associated measurable on p 13) to impose a Cost per unit maximum $100,000 ceiling for Town subsidies for affordable home ownership.  Even before the current sharp rise in housing prices, ACLT needed to tap multiple resources, well in excess of this amount, to make home ownership reachable for families earning less than 80 percent of area median income, which includes many Town and UMASS employees such as teachers, researchers, public safety, administrative and service employees.  Other organizations’ programs have had the same experience. If we are serious about supporting “improved access to homeownership, especially among low-income residents, Black, indigenous, and people of color,” we shouldn’t tie our hands with arbitrary limits that don’t fit the reality of our market. 

A final recommendation from the perspective of reading to the end of the plan: Be explicit early about the economic challenges that underlie it.
There is a measure of incongruence between the lofty goals in the plan overview, and the areas addressed in the most detail in later pages and the priorities and measurables set.  We are all aware that Amherst needs to find opportunities to increase revenue without exacerbating its already high real estate tax rate. The tax rate is high because we have a high fraction of tax-exempt land and a population with a strong commitment to excellent schools and public services.  

The current overview lists only lofty social goals in its first two pages, followed by pages of strategies that are clearly there to incentivize the kind of development that expands the tax base.  The few strategies that explicitly address the social goals are given low priority.  This invites skepticism rather than support from thoughtful readers.   Why not acknowledge frankly in the overview the challenge it poses to meet both our social goals and our economic needs?  That would invite more creative thinking about possible models, and honest responses as the discussion continues.  Strategies could then be evaluated and prioritized according to their contribution to all the drivers established in the overview.

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2 thoughts on “Affordable Housing Experts Respond To Town’s Comprehensive Housing Plan Draft

  1. “In the first two decades of the 21st century the population of school age children in Amherst dropped by a startling 27%. That age group is shrinking nationally and more so in New England than in the South and West, but the drop in Hampshire County overall was 5%. It seems reasonable to interpret the very large discrepancy between Amherst and the countywide figure as a direct result of the cost of settling a young family in Amherst.”

    Do any of the councilors on the CRC understand this fact? ! Anyone on the planning board?

    For that matter, did anyone before them on the select board for the prior 20+ years get any of this? This has been the trend for not years but decades.

    It seems clear that those with deep experience in this area, like AMAHT and ACLT have a clue about what’s been going on in the Amherst housing market and it’s connections with the town budget, tax base, school enrollment, etc.

    It’s not clear that anyone on the town council does.

    It’s a shame those in power do not seem to be interested in leveraging the experience and expertise of those who have it and are offering it here.

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