Letter: Town Planners Should Try Harder To Preserve The Affordable Housing That We Have

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A version of this letter was sent to the Planning Board and Town Planning Department On June 16, 2021

The pending application of an absentee landlord to convert a single family dwelling to a duplex on College Street highlights a couple of important planning issues for Amherst. 

First, although the requirements for a special permit are somewhat more flexible than for a zoning variance, one important principle applies: Unless there is some impediment to use as prescribed by the zoning bylaw, relief of the kind sought here is not appropriate.  This property is in a zone for single-family dwellings; its lot is sized for a single-family dwelling; it is currently being used as a single-family dwelling; there is no reason it cannot continue to be used as a single-family dwelling. Therefore, no exception to the law should be necessary for its continued productive use as is.

When I was a member and chair of the ZBA, we understood that we were to grant the applicant’s relief from a zoning requirement only if there was some hardship, something that made it impossible or at least very difficult, to comply with the bylaws as written.   Otherwise, over time, we’d be shredding the law and giving the Town things it hadn’t voted for.  The Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals, of all bodies, should readily understand that.

Second, consider affordable housing.  It’s on everyone’s agenda; we know we need more affordable housing.  For Amherst, that should mean not just affordable rental housing but housing that’s affordable to own.  Starter homes, maybe, and homes for Amherst’s local workforce.  Here is a house assessed at $242,000 in a neighborhood of other small houses.  At one time they were all houses for what we’d consider classic families:  parents and kids under one roof.  The tragedy is that over time absentee landlords have outbid those families and created small student dormitories instead.

I wish the Town’s planners and others who want to create new affordable housing would apply their brains and resources to keeping available for families and the local workforce those affordable houses that already exist.  It’s so much better, so much more efficient, so much more likely to be successful if we try to keep the affordable housing we already have, rather than letting them be destroyed and then trying to replace them with new dwellings that are bound to be more expensive and less affordable.  

Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal is one of the founders of Hampshire College and served as its interim president in 2019. He has also been a member and Chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

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3 thoughts on “Letter: Town Planners Should Try Harder To Preserve The Affordable Housing That We Have

  1. Thanks, Ken, for your crystal-clear explanation of why zoning regulations matter, and how ignoring them can lead to unwanted changes to Amherst’s housing profile and demographics.

    Another factor that I feel needs closer consideration and dialogue is Amherst’s high-and-getting-higher property tax rate. Amherst’s financial overseers have proposed a capital plan for four new buildings (library, elementary school, fire station, DPW facility) based on the assumption that a debt exclusion tax override is necessary and inevitable. The $80M school project, which is the largest, and likely the most popular of the four, has been targeted for a debt exclusion override vote.

    Amherst’s property tax rate, currently the 8th highest in Massachusetts, directly affects the cost of housing, which in turn determines who can afford to live here.

    It would be ironic if a tax increase to support a new elementary school were to contribute to the continued displacement of resident families and workers, and the further decline of student enrollment in the Amherst school district.

  2. Where is this affordable housing you speak of? I’d sure like to know! As you point out, Ken, ‘absentee landlords’ buy up houses at rates families cannot afford or compete with, jacking up prices for everyone. Young families make little more than they did 30 years ago, but everything costs more, and many have millstones of student debt around their necks. So again, I ask you: where is this affordable housing you speak of? And what are you going to do to expand the supply of affordable housing if you are so opposed to construction? To talk is not enough, Ken, and talk is all I see here.

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