Amherst Has Been Losing Its Families And Year-Round Population, In Favor Of A Six- Or Seven-Month Population. Is That Sustainable?
Recently, I was surprised to learn that a phase II zoning priority list for 2022 included an item referred to as off-campus “student housing district” envisioned for a neighborhood close to UMass. Fortunately, we were able to have this item temporarily “tabled,” but I’d like to respond nonetheless, in the hope that it won’t resurface at a later time.
From where I sit, creating an off-campus student housing district could well exacerbate many of the challenges we’ve been working to resolve. I would say we already have a student district on some of the streets closest to UMass on its southern border (in the former Precinct 10 of District 3 – what will be the new Precinct 4B of District 4). These are streets in which almost every house is a student rental. Over the past 20+ years, as more and more single-family houses flipped to student rentals, families and other long-term residents living on these streets moved away. The result is a minimal adult presence to provide a neighborhood watch.
This past December, the police were called to 20 Allen Street where a party had gotten dangerously out of control. Not only was the house condemned for numerous health and safety violations, but the residents of this “satellite” fraternity had transported two unresponsive female students to the house across the street (perhaps so those hosting the party would not be held responsible for the consequences). And this was not the first time this type of noise and nuisance activity had occurred. Unless the envisioned “student district” includes the kind of supervision present in on-campus dormitories, I don’t see how we wouldn’t simply be creating a student party zone.
One Planning Board member suggested that a “student district need not be narrowly focused on students but could simply allow a great many units to be built that would be available to anyone in the housing market.” Based on the last council’s interest in lifting footnote m from the Dimensional Regulations Table, I suspect it’s envisioned that these “great many units” would be built in the General Residence (RG) districts closest to UMass. Even though RG residents chose to live close to town in neighborhoods already zoned for greater density than most every other residential district, I’d venture to say that none of us moved to Amherst because we were seeking to live in a densely populated environment. Many of the streets in District 3 include houses on smaller lots, with neighbors happily living in close proximity to one another. Re-zoning to create even greater densification (for the purpose of developing pricey student housing) is asking these neighborhoods to sacrifice our already limited greenspace and trees to “reduce pressure” (a term I’ve heard used) on the more protected neighborhoods and subdivisions further from town.
It might also be noted that almost all new (privately financed) housing in Amherst has been built to serve the student housing market, not to accommodate families and other year-round residents. (Renting houses and apartments by the bedroom yields the greatest return on investment). Between 2015 and 2022, Amherst permitted over 700 new rental units (with multiple bedrooms), mostly for students – and only 61 new single-family homes. With monthly rental fees set by the bedroom, houses and apartments can be rented to students at rates that remain out of reach for most families and other non-student households.
On a more macro level, I question the call for “a great many more units to be built.” As per the 2020 Census, between 2010 and 2020, Amherst’s population only grew by 1,444 residents. All of this growth was in District 3; approximately 1,300 of these residents live in the two new Honors College dorms. During the same ten-year period, UMass increased enrollment by ~5,000 students, leading to the conclusion that our family and long-term population decreased over that time. In fact, in 2017, based on research conducted by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, John Hornik estimated that there were “667 fewer families [in Amherst] with children under 18 than there were 15 years before.” This loss of families with children is clearly evident in the declining enrollment in our K-12 schools – a trend that does not bode well for Amherst’s long-term viability.
The loss of single-family and “starter” homes to student rental conversions is further contributing to our declining family and year-round population.
The question becomes: if Amherst continues to lose families and other long-term residents – if we become a town that’s 75-80% students, most of whom are only here for roughly six – seven months out of twelve – is that sustainable? Can Amherst survive with a seven-month economy? In fact, it is precisely those neighborhoods closest to downtown where we need to maintain a robust year-round population. In District 3 – where many of us have the option to walk into town — we are the “bulk” of the people who patronize downtown businesses on a day in and day out basis throughout the year.
Rather than building a great many new units for students, I would argue that, to maintain a viable, vibrant, and sustainable town, Amherst should include among its priorities, retaining and expanding its long-term population. We should not be so willing to sacrifice our long-standing neighborhoods of year-round residents to the student rental market.
I might also note that several smaller towns that are home to large state universities (including State College, PA and Newark, DE) have adopted minimum distance requirements to great success. These, and other college towns, have worked hard to modulate student housing not to consolidate it within stable, family-friendly, off-campus neighborhoods.
In a future column, I will share strategies that other college towns have implemented to ensure that neighborhoods, which have long been home to year-round residents and families, keep from reaching the “tipping point” at which non-student households move away. After all, it is our long-term residents who serve on our governing boards and commissions, send children to our K-12 schools, and have a long-term stake in Amherst – one measured in decades not semesters.
Jennifer Taub is an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 3