Opinion: Council Needs To Step In On Conversion Of Homes To Student Housing

Photo: amherstma.gov

This column appeared previously in the Amherst Bulletin

John Varner

I would encourage the Town Council to get serious about regulating the conversion of single-family homes into student housing. This means writing regulations that address the future conversion of houses by investors, and it means allocating funds to enforce existing town policies for houses already converted. Restricting the density of student housing through zoning changes, which has proved effective in academic communities across the country, would be a start.

In the course of the last decade alone, scores of Amherst’s single-family houses have been lost to student housing. This may be great for the investors who buy and convert these properties, but they are getting rich by changing the character of both the neighborhoods where this is becoming a malignant problem, and the town itself.

The effect of these conversions may not yet be obvious to residents of Amherst Woods and similar upscale enclaves, but by reducing the number of single-family homes, these conversions are also taking a toll on Amherst’s public schools, long a point of pride, and now in decline thanks to the changing demographics made worse by lax policies that are driving single families with their kids and their civically engaged parents from town.

There is a sad irony to the town’s spending millions on expanding the library while allowing unbridled student housing conversions that drain the community of potential library users.

I live across the street from a house that underwent conversion last year. The house, initially rented without a required permit, is now occupied by more than the legal number of students, whose cars are parked, against town regulations, on the property’s yard, and in the street in a manner that restricts traffic and forces larger vehicles to turn over the traffic island in front of my house, or run into my yard.

The students have been storing trash in the basement before occasionally taking it to deposit illegally in dumpsters elsewhere in town. And, although these students are mostly well behaved, there are comings and goings at all hours of the night. The landlord of this property could, according to town rental laws, be charged $100/day for violations.

Instead, this money is being “left on the table,” because the one overworked town employee charged with enforcement has several thousand properties to oversee, and can only pay attention to the most egregious offenders.

Thirty years ago, when my wife and I purchased our home, we thought we’d never move. Amherst was desirable because it used to offer a stimulating yet semi-rural atmosphere with great schools, a strong sense of community, and progressive values.

That is changing, thanks primarily to the lack of will and oversight by Amherst town management that has eroded my property value, diminished my peace of mind, and allowed LLCs and individual landlords to become richer at the expense of the community at large.

John Varner

John Varner is a resident of Amherst and a former member of Amherst Town Meeting

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: Council Needs To Step In On Conversion Of Homes To Student Housing

  1. As someone looking for a home in the town of Amherst because our kids already go to the schools, we experienced many frustrations in trying to buy a home in some neighborhoods, because so many homes were being sold to investors instead of family home owners. I do not want students to be left high and dry with no rentals but there must be some way to protect the balance of neighborhoods so that it’s possible to find an affordable family home in all areas of town. The houses owned by investors often deteriorate and require a lot of work before the home is livable by a family. So even sales of former rentals that look affordable turn out to be beyond the skill of most families to rehabilitate.
    Erica Wise

  2. How refreshing. Instead of hiding the nasty attitude and prejudice against college students, somebody comes right out says what they really feel. The sad part is that there are probably a lot of people in town who share his feelings, though they won’t admit it in public.

  3. To Simon Peter Alciere: If your remarks were directed toward me, I take exception. I do not have a ‘nasty attitude’ or ‘prejudice’ toward students. I was one, too. But I assure you, I would NOT want to live beside the college-age me. My life as a student was on a very different schedule, with different social patterns, appropriate for a 20 year old, but not for someone with a family who is an adult on a normal work schedule, who has made an investment in a property that is now being reduced in value because people are trying to make money by renting to college students in my neighborhood.
    The truth is many people are more than happy to send their kids off to college, because people of that age behave in ways and are willing to live in conditions that mature adults do not and will not.
    I enjoy living around The energy college students bring. I do not enjoy having my lawn and the one across the street turned into a parking lot. I do not enjoy looking at a property across the street that has weeds growing high and trash piled against the garage door. I do not enjoy being awakened at 2:00 AM. I do not enjoy the anxiety of wondering what next year’s tenants will be like, and if I will have again to try to coax the town to enforce its own laws that are supposed to deal with squalor, noise, traffic, and safety. I do not enjoy unresponsive, irresponsible landlords hiding behind shell companies and LLCs enriching themselves at the expense of individual home owners, students and the town at large. I do not enjoy reading websites telling people how to get rich by buying up moderately priced, single family homes for student rental conversions. I do not enjoy a university that has increased enrollment by 10,000 in the last decade without expanding housing, thereby forcing students into residential neighborhoods.
    Not all student landlords are bad. I reserve my ‘prejudice’ and ‘nasty attitude’ for the ones who are degrading the quality of life in Amherst, and for the short sighted people who live in town but think this is not their problem.

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