Opinion: Watch – Emily Tells It Straight And Slant About Housing In Amherst


Dina Stander as Emily Dickinson in the You Tube video, " Emily Tells It Straight and Slant". Photo: You Tube

by Ira Bryck, Dina Stander and Kitty Axelson Berry

Dear Amherst friends and neighbors,

We hope you will enjoy this visit from Emily Dickinson, “telling it straight and slant” about her vexations with poorly maintained, overpriced houses for students, and buildings that require too many unwise waivers. And please make yourself heard to the Town Council and Planning Board (see info at end of our 3.5 minute video). Note: This video is not associated with the Emily Dickinson Museum.

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9 thoughts on “Opinion: Watch – Emily Tells It Straight And Slant About Housing In Amherst

  1. you can email the planning board at planning@amherstma.gov

    and the town council, post a public comment at https://www.amherstma.gov/councilcomments

    and the town manager at bockelmanp@amherstma.gov

    letting them know your views on:

    • increasing investment by investors, buying individual and groups of homes to turn into student rentals
    • overcrowding and overcharging students into under-maintained houses
    • the idea that a Mixed Use building can have only 30% “non-residential” on any floor of the building, instead of 100% of the ground/first floor be non-residential – which means public facing businesses and offices, not just anything that isn”t a bed
    • that the planning board should not consider certain neighborhoods “student slums” and grant waivers that will increase the deterioration of the house and its neighborhood
    • that the university needs to engage in a more realistic discussion about increasing enrollment without providing ample residence halls on campus
    • that the community expressing their views on the evolution of our town is not “nimby naysaying”

    many thanks

    Ira Bryck

  2. The “… unkempt/… verklemmt” rhyme is worthy of W.S. Gilbert, and D. Stander belts it out beautifully, albeit a cappella . (If it’s ever set to music, who might be I. Bryck’s Hart/Hammerstein?! ;-))

  3. If you have a housing shortage, why is everything you are working toward related to business and restriction of housing? Why not a word about affordable housing, not your soda fountain?
    Who do you prefer to live here?

    “Historic and Modern” = restrictive covenant. That’s the history here.

  4. Hello, Joseph, I wrote the piece that “Emily” delivered, and answer this for myself:

    Amherst has the same housing shortage as the entire country. I support increasing the supply of housing for families, young professionals, retirees, and students.

    Amherst houses are 50% rentals, with the majority of those students. UMass brags they house a healthy percent of students, but the many students they don’t house live in our small city, not in a state capital, like most flagships of state schools. They need to build more dorms, not let our downtown be transformed into large private student dorm/apartments.

    The push for business is because those downtown dorms are finagled into “mixed use” zoning, where the developer thinks that only 30% of the ground floor needs to be commercial.

    It is ruining the town, and also attracting many outside investors, buying up starter homes and pricing them for 4+ students at $1200 per bed. That leaves families on the sidelines.

    Ira Bryck

  5. Why are so many concerned with offending the (off-campus) behavior of students. In the 60s many students lived off-campus in Amherst, but police reports and other documentation proved that, as much fun and/or immaturity as they exhibited, it was not at the significant cost to the town in terms of of emergency services or the lack of affordable housing for middle income earners and families.
    If I remember correctly (having been in law enforcement at the time) plenty of students had fun then, but actually tried to keep that on the down-low. Even their parents held them accountable if they went over the edge.
    The current disadvantage to Amherst seems to be an increase in publicly acceptable bad behavior as well as the profit driven and accommodated behavior of investment property owners.
    Have we not witnessed what continually raising the bar of what is acceptable has done to this country?
    Let’s get back to calling it what it is…the tail should not be wagging the dog and raising the bar is not always beneficial.
    Accountability is/should be the key.

    James Murphy

  6. “Emily” puts it well.

    Year-round Amherst residents concerned about our Town’s increasingly obtrusive “dormification” and “student slumification” can write all they want. I would never discourage it. But, candidly, they have little recourse if any when our civic powers disregard their views. Looking more deeply, those dispositive civic powers consist of a majority of the 13 Town Councilors. These lack any institutional counterweight. That is because Amherst lacks an elected Mayor, or elected Select Board. We have only a hired Town Manager.

    The Town Manager is Town Council’s employee. The Town Manager might in practice be exceedingly powerful. I think it fair to say that ours is. Nonetheless, Amherst’s Town Manager is not accountable to Amherst’s thousands of voters. The Town Manager is accountable only to the seven Town Councilors who can vote to fire that person, or else vote not to renew the Town Manager’s contract.

    When Amherst had an elected Town Meeting as its legislative branch, and Amherst’s executive branch was a separate, elected Select Board, our Town government did have separation of the legislative and executive powers. It was not perfect. Human arrangements seldom are. But the structure itself facilitated accountability. Both Town Meeting and Select Board members had an incentive for taking account of voters’ views. And each body knew that the other could be a counterweight to it. Amherst’s executive “branch” and Town Council have these accountability factors no longer.

    Amherst voters’ sole means, under our recent Charter, of trying to hold the Town Manager accountable, is to vote out a majority of the Town Councilors. So attenuated a means is laughable. It is no accountability at all.

    I see it as a fundamental structural flaw in our recent Amherst Home Rule Charter. On its face it violates our hard-won Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. At the revolutionary Town Meetings’ insistence, that Constitution included a Declaration of Rights. This Declaration is our Constitution’s Part the First. Its Article XXX mandates the separation of the legislative, executive, and judicial powers – and specifies the transcendent reason why.

    “In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men.” https://malegislature.gov/Laws/Constitution.

    Our Constitution’s Article of Amendment LXXXIX (89), Section 2, applies this Article XXX to municipalities, such as Amherst. It provides:

    “The provisions of any adopted or revised charter or any charter amendment shall not be inconsistent with the constitution ….”

    The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) is our top state court. What would the SJC make of a municipal charter providing for a legislative branch whose powers include final authority over the executive? No one seems yet to have asked. Yet Amherst’s Town Council well knows that the Town Manager, even if inclined, cannot effectively interpose objections to whatever a majority supports. Amherst’s lack of separation of the legislative and executive powers would certainly seem to run afoul of Article XXX.

    Full disclosure: This is not my area of the law. Furthermore, Article XXX surely has nuances in its application. That said, however, I’ve lived here for nearly 23 years. I am concerned about UMass’s unilateral decisions to accept more undergraduates than it can house, thus creating an incentive for Amherst’s Town government to acquiesce in the proliferation of high cost private “dormitories” and exploitative “student slums.” These cannot be optimum for the quality of students’ education or its cost. They in turn are pricing out families. This is weakening Amherst’s civic fabric.

    Even without looking at Article XXX, this recent Charter’s fundamental, structural defect is therefore rightfully the concern of all Amherst residents, academic year and year-round alike.

    Article 9 of the Charter, Section 9.6, provides for a review of the Charter in 2024. That opens the door for needed improvements. Independently of that, it would be no surprise to me if the SJC held our Charter’s lack of separation of powers to be unconstitutional, and that certain decisions by Town Council, i.e., its legislative branch, were therefore without effect. I think both points worth keeping in mind when considering detrimental changes to the quality of life in our Town.


  7. Looking forward to 2024 with a modest proposal — a rough draft — a propos Sarah’s final paragraph:

    • Establish a Town Executive Board (3 members, 3-year terms, elected annually at-large on a rotating basis) which appoints any manager, ratifies (or not) any department heads, and which holds approval or veto authority over the legislative body and appoints or ratification authority for certain Town boards (like the ZBA);

    • Expand the Town Council (perhaps to 15 or even 30 members, 3 or even 6 per district, 3-year terms, elected annually by district on a rotating basis) with legislative authority and the authority to override Executive Board veto by a 2/3 vote of Council members;

    • Resident petition process with a modest threshold (perhaps 25 signatures of registered voters or established residents regardless of voter status) to bring legislative items to the Council upon which it must act in its current session; and

    • Resident veto authority over any legislative or executive act through timely petition (requiring perhaps 250 signatures…) for reconsideration by the acting body and timely referendum if the acting body fails to reconsider….

    • [please amend and supplement!!!]

  8. Rob’s ideas – all excellent – would be beyond the scope of the current charter and would thus require a new Charter Commission to propose a new charter to send to the voters for ratification. And of course establishing a new Charter Commission would require a huge petition effort to get the question on a ballot and then an affirmative vote on the ballot question, which simultaneously approves a commission and elects its members. I think this would be true of any significant structural change – like replacing an appointed manager with an elected mayor..

    Sarah’s letter = and Rob’s comment – underscore that our governance problems are indeed structural. This second Town Council has many excellent members, and its debates have been informed and informative. But the charter requires them to concentrate power and even voice in themselves. Sarah and Rob would restore separation of powers and checks and balances to our government, but sadly I would be surprised if the SJC acted to nullify our governance or its decisions.

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