This letter was sent to members of the Amherst Town Council on August 27, 2021
Gentrification: n. The restoration and upgrading of deteriorated urban property by middle-class or affluent people, often resulting in displacement of lower-income people.
The word is new enough that there is no accepted antonym. I would like to propose one, based on recent experience: slumification.
In Amherst, some neighborhoods are undergoing the process of gentrification in reverse. Houses in middle-class neighborhoods are being bought up as ‘investment properties’, sometimes en masse, by wealthy individuals, LLCs or developers, instead of being sold as ‘starter houses’ for young couples. These are then rented out to groups of students at a rate of around $1,000/month/bedroom. These ‘investment properties’ are too often allowed to deteriorate, as their investor owners seek to maximize profit for their return in the shortest time possible.
Assuming they do not make nuisances of themselves, I have nothing against the students who rent these properties. (True confession: The adult me would be justifiably irate if the college-age me moved in next door.) Students need affordable housing, UMass is short of dorm space, and lately the town seems to be heavily favoring developers who are catering to the well-heeled with multi-story buildings in town center and North Amherst.
Many Amherst residents do, or should, have issues with some of the landlords of student rental houses when their properties become vehicles for the quick enrichment of a few at the lasting expense of the many. This is happening throughout Amherst. Streets that were once lined with modest, well-kept single-family homes are on their way to becoming student ghettos. Virtually any neighborhood with a house worth less than $400K is at risk. A student rental or two on a given block might be OK, but at some point, a tipping point is reached, and there is an inexorable slide in behavior norms, property up-keep, and values.
My street is now in danger of slumification. It is a peaceful cul-de-sac of a couple dozen houses abutting conservation land. It has been an ideal neighborhood in which to raise kids, and several generations of families have done that since the early ’60s, when the street was developed. Owners and renters tend their lawns, keep up repairs on their houses, and seem to be in friendly competition to see who can have the most appealing gardens and landscaping. This sense of community helps to keep property values up. However, my neighbors and I have had our worried eyes on two properties on the street.
One was recently cheaply renovated, after a broken pipe caused severe water damage, by a house-flipper under contract who misinformed the neighborhood while he did the work. The other went through a rocky period as a rental after its initial owner of 60 years passed away. This house is a particular concern. Its old roof leaks in several spots. The fascia boards and window casings are rotting away, and structural water damage is starting. The last coat of paint — cheaply applied — is peeling off in giant chunks. Both of the garage doors have fallen apart. Weeds grew knee high and a dead tree precariously leans over the decaying house.
Both these houses went on the market in the past spring, and sold quickly — to the same individual, who also purchased three other houses in Amherst at the same time. (Quite a spending spree….) The houses were rented, without first getting the required rental permits, to groups of students who were out of town until fall, leaving the properties untended. We neighbors are now waiting anxiously to see if our worst nightmares — obstreperous youth partying till all hours of the night, driving too fast up and down the street on which several young kids have been (until now) playing safely, etc. — come to pass. The beer pong table one group moved into the broken garage was not a promising sign…. We hope to welcome the new student tenants to the neighborhood with a cook-out. Hopefully this will set things on a positive course. Friends in another part of town recently got a letter from their new student neighbors, who asked that they be called, not the police, in the event of late-night disturbances. These students promised to ‘behave responsibly’, if their neighbors did so, too. It’s unclear if this was a veiled threat, or just a poor word choice, and even if things work out this year, there is next year….
Regardless of tenant behavioral issues, what my neighbors and I have objections to is a landlord who does not put a reasonable amount of their rental income into the upkeep of their properties. Landlords who fail to keep their properties up to neighborhood standards are essentially making extra money by lowering the property values of everyone else on the street through the deteriorating state of their ‘investments’. Yes, people have a right to invest their money in properties in the community. NO, they should not have a right to enrich themselves at the direct expense of other town residents by allowing their rental properties to become ‘party central’, and/or fall into disrepair, thereby dragging down not just the property values of neighbors, but ultimately the tax base of the town.
Amherst is struggling with a housing availability problem. The causes are manifold, and include the national problem of income inequity. As more and more properties are transferred into fewer and fewer hands, the rich get richer and everyone else has trouble buying or even renting affordably. In Amherst, this process has been accelerated greatly by the expansion of UMass, which has grown its enrollment over the last 20 years without adding adequate dorm space. The town, which changed its form of governance a few years ago, and was then faced with COVID strictures, is not keeping up on this problem.
Indeed, few on Town Council even recognized the stampede to convert single family homes to student rentals as part of the problem in a recent meeting, and town management seems more interested in furthering the interests of a few developers who pay lip service to adding ‘affordable housing’ while clogging town with toney apartments built with little community input and no associated parking. There seems to be no effort at all directed toward de-incentivizing investors, who have zeroed in on Amherst’s housing shortage as an opportunity to get rich quick.
There are strategies to deal with this.
1) Reduce the number of unrelated individuals allowed in any one single-family house from four to three. Other college towns, like Ithaca (New York), have done this to good effect.
2) Mandate inspection each time a new rental contract is negotiated, as part of obtaining a rental permit. The properties on my street were both rented out without first obtaining the town rental permits already required. At least one of the houses has problems with not being weather-tight or animal-proof, violations of Massachusetts rental laws. Landlords are supposed to be notified to rectify situations like this, and are theoretically fined $100/day for violations after an unspecified grace period, but enforcement is sporadic and the town official in charge is grossly overburdened, as all town rental properties are currently scheduled for re-inspection during the same short time frame. The owners should be charged for the inspections and held accountable to fix structural or appearance issues that adversely impact neighboring owners and renters, with a certificate of occupancy being denied as long as appeals are ongoing.
3) Track houses with repeated complaints about noise or appearance and deny landlords renewal of the rental permit for the unit. If the property is being ‘managed’, the property management company involved should be fined and/or have its business license for Amherst revoked.
4) Establish a differential tax structure that favors single-family ownership. Other communities, like Cambridge, have such arrangements. Real estate being held by investors and rented at exorbitant rates to students is a business and should be taxed as such.
5) Require landlords and UMass to provide the vehicle registrations of dorm residents and student tenants to the town, then collect excise taxes on these vehicles. In Massachusetts, vehicle excise taxes are collected based on where the vehicle is “garaged’, i.e.: where the vehicle is parked long-term by its owner. These taxes are earmarked for traffic control and road maintenance. Student vehicles are essentially ‘garaged’ in town, using Amherst roads and services, but excise taxes on those vehicles are going uncollected by the town. UMass should get on board with this, both as a gesture toward improving ‘town-gown relations’, and to reduce the number of vehicles in the area. Amherst residents should not be expected to effectively subsidize student drivers.
6) The identities and contact information of landlords repeatedly not in compliance with behavioral or structural codes could be listed in the public record, the town website, and/or published weekly or monthly in the local paper. Landlords should not be able to hide behind ‘property management’ companies. This would protect both student renters and their temporary neighbors — the long-term residents of Amherst.
There is much hand-wringing over ‘affordable housing’ in Amherst, and what it means for ‘diversity’ and ultimately the desirability and livability of Amherst. To be clear about it, one major reason there is a housing shortage here is because investors are outbidding potential single-family buyers. It is well past time that the government of our beautiful, proud little town puts policies in place — and enforces them — to address slumification.
John Varner is a resident of Amherst and a former member of Amherst Town Meeting