Issues & Analyses: Whose Interests Are Being Served By Proposed Zoning Changes?


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At the January 9 Town Council meeting, an extensive slate of zoning bylaw revisions was placed into motion and is currently before the Planning Board and Community Resources Committee (CRC) for review. These proposed bylaw amendments seek to “downgrade”/weaken the permitting process for duplexes, triplexes, and townhouses and allow them to be built in more zoning districts in town.

Although the sponsors frame their proposal as a way to generate more low, moderate, and middle-income housing — a laudable goal shared by all – the propsed changes provide no incentives or requirements for developers, investors, and landlords to build multi-family housing at below market-rate rents. Therefore, we can expect that most conversions and new construction will be units priced per bedroom for students – where the greatest return on investment is realized. 

Amherst rents are driven by the thousands of students needing to live off-campus. By way of example, on Sunset Avenue, around the corner from where I live, a one-story house with a second unit attached to the back, rents to a total of 8 students (4 per unit). Each of the eight tenants pays $1,000/month, yielding $8,000/month for the property owner. It’s fair to say that two families could not afford to rent these units at $4,000 a piece.

New apartment buildings in Amherst demand shockingly high rents. The Fieldstone apartments, set to open in September 2023, advertise the following monthly rents (priced per bed): studios at $2,256 per bed; 1 bedrooms at $2,471 per bed; 2 bedrooms at $1,826 per bed; 4 bedrooms at $1,540 per bed.

These very high rents will set the market rate in Amherst. Even if properties with fewer amenities charge a few hundred dollars per month less, that will still be out of reach to most families and other non-student households.

Taking Away ZBA Review and Special Permits For Townhouse Developments In The General Residence (RG) Districts
Some of the proposed zoning amendments are especially problematic for the General Residence (RG) districts, which are already zoned for – and welcome – duplexes, triplexes and townhouses. The new Precincts 4B (between Amity and UMass) and 4A (the Cottage Street neighborhood, just east of campus) are RG districts.

To make it easier for developers, the proposed bylaw revisions will no longer require townhouse developments in the RGs to obtain a Special Permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA). Instead, these developments will only require a Site Plan Review issued by the Planning Board. In contrast to the Planning Board, the ZBA has jurisdiction over usage as well as design, so ZBA review is critical. Thanks to the ZBA’s careful deliberation of the Sunset-Fearing Townhouse development (currently under construction), that project now has a comprehensive management plan; fewer four-bedroom units (whose rents are too high for non-student tenants); and a better parking plan.

As Planning Director Christine Brestrup explained at the February 16 CRC meeting: [ZBA review] often gives a developer more of an incentive to …..adjust the plan so that it is more acceptable to the town. I think the project that was recently approved on Sunset Avenue is…an example of that. The developer and the ZBA worked together to make it a better project.”

No longer requiring townhouse developments in the RG to obtain a Special Permit benefits developers and investors at the expense of neighborhood residents. There is no bottleneck in our current permitting system. This and other proposed changes to the permitting process only remove safeguards.

A Matter Of Priorities
At the February 15 Planning Board meeting, Board Chair Doug Marshall stated:

“We have a shortage of housing for students and a shortage of middle income and worker housing. We can’t solve the second without dealing with the first one. I feel like we’re so behind on providing housing for students in this town that it could actually be a while before we see improvement in the worker housing and the middle income housing availability just because so many students have demands that are unmet….more housing will solve one or the other of those problems.”

There is much to unpack here.

I would say that Amherst already has a lot of off-campus student housing. But I do agree with Mr. Marshall, to accommodate allof the 14,000+ UMass students who want to live off-campus, we would need to build quite a bit more housing. (The University provides on-campus housing for ~14,000 of its 28,000+ students.) Trying to satisfy student housing demand could well drive out – and price out – many of Amherst’s long-term residents. The resulting ratio of students to non-students may become so out of balance that Amherst is no longer a viable town in which permanent, year-round residents want to live or move into.

The 2020 U.S. Census shows that the loss of families and other year-round residents is already happening. Between 2010 and 2020, Amherst’s total population increased by only 1,444. All of that growth occurred on the UMass campus. The Commonwealth College dorms, which opened in 2013, accounted for 1,300 of the 1,444 new residents. During this same ten-year period, UMass increased enrollment by ~4,100, yet our total population only increased by 1,444. Hence, our non-student population decreased, seemingly by a few thousand. (Already, our declining K-12 enrollment has us combining three elementary schools into two.)

The statement that “more housing will solve one or the other of these problems” feels a bit too much like rolling the dice. We can’t just loosen our zoning bylaws and hope that developers and landlords will set lower rents. We need to prioritize workforce, middle-income, and family housing over more student housing.

How To Do This?
We don’t have to make changes in the dark. We can learn from other college towns who have faced similar challenges.

Several university towns have implemented some version of “minimum distance requirements” to ensure that a portion of rental housing remains available to non-student households. State College, Pennsylvania and Newark, Delaware require ~500 – 750 feet between student houses. This ensures that if landlords want to rent a dwelling within a certain distance of another student house, those units will have to be priced at rates which non-student households can afford. Other options to maintain housing for year-round residents and families exist. We need to look at what other university towns do.

In Conclusion
The stakes are too high to amend our zoning bylaws and simply hope for the best. The proposed slate of bylaw revisions will not accomplish their stated aims of providing more affordable housing for the “missing middle.” Instead, they could well pave the way for more high-priced student housing and accelerate a trend of departing year-round residents.

To maintain a healthy balance between our student and year-round populations, we must proactively prioritize workforce and family housing. Certainly, our colleges and university are an integral part of what makes Amherst, Amherst. But a sustainable, vibrant town equally draws strength from residents whose commitment and connection to the community is measured in years and decades, not semesters.

Jennifer Taub is an Amherst Town Councilor representing District 3.

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