Councilor Critiques Town’s Draft Comprehensive Housing Policy

Photo: Creative Commons

By Maura and Art Keene

Shortly before the August 23 Town Council Meeting, Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) submitted a detailed critique of the draft Comprehensive Housing Policy developed by the Community Resources Committee.  Her 12 page document can be found here. She noted that while the policy being recommended by the Community Resources Committee (CRC) was significantly improved from its original version, the final draft still left her with several serious concerns.  Schoen presented a summary of her concerns to the council but there was no follow-up discussion. Schoen encouraged her fellow councilors to read the document, which was in their packet. The council is slated to vote on adopting the Comprehensive Housing Policy at their next meeting on September 13.

The draft policy has received considerable critique over the last several months from residents as well as from affordable housing organizations although John Hornik, Chair of the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust and an early critic of the policy, praised the final draft for “wanting to  create affordable dwelling units and reduce homelessness and cost burdening of renters and homeowners.”

The CRC draft policy lays out five goals from improving housing supply in Amherst:

Goal I: Promote greater pathways to homeownership and integrated communities through Increased supply of a diversity of housing types.

Goal II: Increase the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing.

Goal III: Create, update, and maintain safe, secure, and environmentally healthy housing.

Goal IV: Address climate sustainability and resiliency of housing stock, location, and construction.

Goal V: Align and leverage municipal funding and other resources to support affordable housing

Summary Of Critique
Schoen highlighted the stress that the growth of UMass has placed on the housing market in Amherst. She stated that in the past 20 years the student population of Amherst has increased from 21,000 to 31,000 with virtually no increase in student housing on campus. To satisfy the need for student housing, investors have purchased many smaller houses and have rented them to students by the bedroom. This produces a greater income for the landlord than if the home were rented to a family and also prices many families out of the Amherst housing market.

Schoen listed several ways to engage UMass in easing the stress on Amherst housing by increasing Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funds to the town and taxing noneducational activities on campus.  These funds could then be used to subsidize the creation of more housing in Amherst.

Population Density An Issue
Another aspect of the CRC draft policy that Schoen questioned is the emphasis on increasing access to housing by revising zoning laws to permit increased density in the town center and village centers. Schoen noted that Amherst is already much denser than Northampton with 2.24 residents per acre, as opposed to 1.25 in Northampton. She noted that much of the housing built near the downtown is geared to students and commands high rents. She also noted that some areas of Amherst are zoned for lower density to protect water quality, floodplains, wetlands, farmland, streams, and architecturally significant areas.

Lack Of Attention To Streets, Sidewalks, Transit, And Public Infrastructure
The CRC policy mentions walkability and bikeability far down on its list of concerns. Schoen pointed out that even many of the town’s main streets do not have sidewalks or bicycle lanes, and the CRC policy does not emphasize the need to improve Amherst streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. 

Goals And Discussion Need Revision
Several of the CRC implementation goals mention working with developers and seeking funding from the state to increase the number of housing units. Schoen argued that the policy is unclear about the town’s role in incentivizing production of more housing. The policy does not mention Habitat for Humanity or the Amherst Community Land Trust, both of which promote affordable home ownership. Schoen recommended adding a new goal focused on UMass. She suggested that Goal III, Health and Safety of Existing Housing, needs to be stronger and should discuss concerns regarding deterioration of rental housing and weak current oversight. She praised Goal IV  on climate change and suggested that it could be stronger and provide examples. She praised the incorporation of an explicit goal of affordability and added that it needs to be highlighted as a top priority.

Implementation List Needs Substantial Revision
Schoen argued that the list of implementation strategies offered is biased, not analytic, and that some of the policies listed conflict with each other, and that the text implies endorsement by the council. She suggested that the list needs to be shorter and more descriptive and that the text ought to discuss the implications that the proposed policies have for each other. She said the lists fail to recognize inherent conflicts. For example, climate and resiliency require green space but we do not have design standards for that. Schoen also argued that the theme of deregulating across the board is problematic and should be dropped. 

More Specifics On Housing And Climate Action
Finally, Schoen said she believes that a comprehensive housing policy should specify more explicit strategies for achieving the town’s climate action goals of a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and recommended that the strategies for improving housing be more thoroughly evaluated, instead of merely listed.

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