The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council on April 29, 2022.
I just came across a notice posted on a Facebook Users Group on UMass Housing. Four roommates in a house on Sunset Ave across from Southwest are looking for a fifth roommate. The four are seniors and say they are pretty social and enjoy having people over often. It looks like a small three bedroom ranch. They say they have five “beds” and are asking $800/month. That would result in $4,200 a month for a landlord who has probably paid off his mortgage. Not bad. This ad is pretty typical. I subscribe to this users group and it includes undergrads and graduate students. It provides a good snapshot as to what is needed, what are the going rates, what is the typical occupancy level, and what outlying communities also have rentals for students. Right now there is a desperate need to fill summer sublets. Most of the summer these houses are empty, dead spots with trash and over grown yards, sometimes old cars.
I don’t know what universe the developer of the proposed project on Sunset and Fearing is living in when he says there is lots of money around. He says he sees that at his closings. Of course, people who do closings have money. He does not see the people who can’t do closings and wind up answering the above ads, sometimes renting the living room in a full house. These students provide most of the tenants who rent in downtown houses. If the developer is also a lawyer and does closings, I can bet who many of his clients are. They are parents of undergraduates who have opted to go to UMass and pay half the tuition that they would pay at, say Northeastern. The parents live in New Jersey, Boston, Cotuit, India. They send their kids to college and are building equity at the same time! Win-win. The students love it because they can smoke and drink, which they can’t do in the dorms.
Last night I listened to the hearing of the Zoning Board of Appeals and it was the first time I viewed the project proposed for Sunset and Fearing. I realized there were no condos, no owner-occupied dwellings, and that it was a commercial rental property with an entrance and exit on Sunset Ave.
The developer suggests this is the ‘commercial’ end of Sunset. The house that he is planning to move from the neighborhood to make way for the development had always been owner-occupied until he bought it two years ago and put in renters. The other house he is planning to move was occupied by a UMass professor until it was sold to an employee of UMass who filled it with undergraduates. It has been a problem house with many calls to the police over the years. I’m sure someone can manage it better than that no matter what goes in there. The Amherst Creamery across the street is a historic building built in the l800’s by a spinoff of Mass Agricultural College faculty to process milk products. It sold ice cream when we moved here in l969. It now houses many professionals who work at or relate to UMass. There is on-site parking. There are no parties.
The developer got quite defensive when it became clear to the neighbors who will actually live in this neighborhood – that the prime renters for these units will be undergraduate students. He accused us of not liking undergraduates and unfairly discriminating against them. I think he is missing the point. When you have a neighborhood of primarily owner-occupied homes you have residents who are committed to the upkeep and stability of the neighborhood all year round. Many of us house a graduate student in our homes and we have had a fraternity in our midst since l940. I have never met a student I couldn’t get along with, sober that is. But as one house after the next succumbs to student rentals you can reach a tipping point where normal family life is no longer sustainable amidst the high energy of crowds, noise, beer cans on the lawns, 3 a.m Ubers picking up drunk students, sunbathing on the roof, Amazon and door dash deliveries for 10 people in one house. There comes a point where a neighborhood can deteriorate very quickly and there are rumblings of that now on Sunset Avenue.
What should be there?
A Fantasy: I have heard that at the south end of Sunset Ave. Amherst College bought a house for the new Amherst College President. Why not build a beautiful house for the UMass President at the north end of Sunset?
Realistically: house the Amherst Media there. Or, my dream, to have an International Five College Foreign Student house with events and seminars for town and gown, and with small apartments for visiting scholars.
If rental housing is the only financial option for the developers, I suggest they look at the model of Amity Place at the end of Sunset and bordering on Amity Street. This project has been very well integrated into the neighborhood. The buildings are condos, and people own them and mostly live in them. Residents have formed a community and are not only a neighborhood of their own but also visit our farm and volunteer there and have become part of the downtown landscape. I’m sure there are some students living amongst them as well.
Constance Gillen is a resident of Amherst