Letter: Proposed Zoning Changes Exacerbate Crisis Caused By Shortage Of On-Campus Housing


John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Washington residential towers at UMass. \ Photo: wikimedia commons

The following letter was sent to the Amherst Town Council, Town Manager, Planning Board, and Planning Department on April 17, 2023

As much as the current proposal (by Councilors Hanneke and De Angelis) to significantly reduce the need for site plan reviews and special permits keeps evolving, it continues to not solve the problem it exacerbates.

Amherst’s housing stock is already more than half rentals, and the majority of those are student rentals, and the majority of those are overpriced and under-maintained. You have heard the steady howl from our community about how more dorms are needed on campus, as we are a town that houses a major university (and 2 smaller colleges, that are not contributing nearly as much to the problem). Now you are hearing from UMass students, who are demanding more on-campus housing, for reasons of price, safety, and a better college experience. (Surprise!! After hearing from non-students that students crave the off campus experience.)

Part of their unpleasant college experience is the result of UMass not providing enough on-campus housing, no matter how much it brags that it does. Then their students/ customers are left to fend for themselves in a predatory market, ever worsening as distant investors snatch up not only houses, but neighborhoods.  This, as we struggle to build a school and library that will serve families, as we simultaneously create an increasingly hostile environment for families and owners occupying their homes. Not to mention, a town in which UMass faculty and staff increasingly cannot not afford to live.

There is a local, state, and national housing shortage, which is a complex problem. The housing shortage in Amherst has our particular ailments on top of the usual. The zoning proposal hardly addresses this special problem, and the unintended consequences (or ignored consequences) will make our town unaffordable and unappealing for current and future home owning families, as well as retirees and young professionals.

The councilors who keep pushing their flawed zoning proposal are twisting it this way and that, but not solving the problems inherent within it. We should not judge it based on whether it might help in a town that didn’t host a flagship state university. 

Look at all the things that could go wrong if that proposal became law. Listen to the overwhelming complaint from the community you volunteered to serve. It’s your job to represent, to protect, to serve, not to impose your will on a population that doesn’t buy what you are selling.

To the members of the Amherst Planning Board, please continue to object to this plan, and insist that our town deal with our unique challenge of student housing and predatory landlords and developers. Protect the healthy balance of our community by ensuring our zoning bylaws don’t open the floodgates to more of the tsunami we are already experiencing.

Ira Bryck

Ira Bryck has lived in Amherst since 1993, ran the Family Business Center for 25 years, hosted the “Western Mass. Business Show” on WHMP for seven years, now coaches business leaders, and is a big fan of Amherst’s downtown.

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9 thoughts on “Letter: Proposed Zoning Changes Exacerbate Crisis Caused By Shortage Of On-Campus Housing

  1. Zoning regulations are too restrictive at this point. One example is demanding lot sizes that are too large. Although it will not solve all our problems, …………….restrictive regulations have exacerbated our housing crisis. We want everything to look picture perfect. We want an unobtainable utopia. We should find ways to increase the housing stock, even if it does look beautiful to our critical eye. Face reality. Amherst has come to mimic the look of some kind of private school. Put down dreams of utopia and loosen regulations. We are not royalty. “Predatory landlords and developers?” These are just people trying to a living like the rest of us. Do I have to point out that these people STILL have to abide by zoning regulations. Just ones that are not as strict. We set up the regulations. This is what we have control over. Let the free market do the rest.

  2. The free market has led to a steady decline in our year round population, which is reflected in our rapidly diminishing school enrollment. Our overall population has remained the roughly the same. Because of the free market, students, with the exorbitant rents they pay, are steadily displacing the rest of us. What is your background and qualifications, Mr. McBride? Except for two published rants against the Community Preservation Act, of all things , I can’t find anything online about you.

  3. Two contradictory statements by this writer:
    1) Amherst housing stock is a majority —more than half—rental units. That is true according to the Town and federal census figures.
    2) The majority are owned by predatory slumlords: “over-priced and under maintained” is insulting to the large well-managed and beautifully maintained apartment units built sixty or more years ago by multi generational families with esteemed business reputations in this town.
    3) It is true that we have some scrupulous property owners, well-known to Inspection Services and permitting boards. However, these few poorly managed single family home rentals are hardly “a majority.”
    Let’s be careful with refutable generalizations as they seldom win arguments.

  4. Tom, while I don’t agree with your contention that restrictive zoning is to blame for Amherst’s housing problem, I do appreciate that you are thinking about the issue and expressing your thoughts. I believe healthy dialogue is key to uniting residents around making good decisions on what Amherst should look like and how its leaders should serve the public.

    Sadly, constructive public dialogue has almost vanished in Amherst’s new form of government.

  5. hi, Hilda,

    As you and I have discussed, the true/exact figures of how many rental houses there are and how many college students are living off-campus in Amherst are closely guarded secrets. The town and the university each point to the other as having the true numbers, and numbers I have seen are usually missing some category of added beds or declining school age children. I have personally been pointed back and forth, when researching that, as have town councilors.

    I claim “overpriced” from data I have seen from several sources, that a bed in Amherst starts at $1400-$1600, so a 4 bed dwelling is around $6000 per month. As has been said many times, that blocks families from any house aimed at students. As far as under-maintained, having lived in Amherst for 30 years, or you for 65 years, I think we’ve both seen overwhelming evidence. It’s incredible the amount of pivotal decisions the town is making without those crucial numbers.

    As for you feeling insulted when I say “predatory slumlord,” any student landlord that serves their customers well is not who I’m referring to. I can simultaneously say the majority of the world’s politicians are huge disappointments and also that there are many I admire.

    Where you and I have disagreed is that I think landlords should pay the cost of inspections to maintain safety standards. It is a cost of doing business, and of course would enter into your pricing.

    The price of a thing needs to consider all the costs, including the “true costs” (ie: a gallon of gas should be priced to include cleaning the pollution it causes). It is also determined by what a customer is willing to pay. I think the recent action, where 100 UMass students camped out on campus, demanding better/ faster/ cheaper housing represents what a turn-off the majority of Amherst’s rental properties are. Economic principles would predict that at some point landlords will feel less demand and then compete on price, and others would follow suit.

    That might happen when the “demographic cliff (and) existential threat” arrives in 2026, when baby boomers’ kids are all out of college, and when the declining birth rate beginning in 2008 hits college age. That’s the prediction of UMass President Marty Meehan https://www.boston.com/news/schools/2019/03/06/umass-marty-meehan-online-college-existential-threat/

    Despite comments from town and gown leaders, that students are craving the off-campus experience, this seems to indicate that today’s UMass student is trending towards wanting more on-campus housing. It is an opportunity, now that the long-awaited private-public partnership is allowed, to build more apartment-style dorms on-campus.

    In that way, the town of Amherst can do its part to be quaint but modern, busy but not frantic; and the increase in supply, because of providing on-campus housing, will make houses more affordable, stop the frequent offers of cash for our houses from distant investors, and maintain itself as a place to raise a family, retire, shop and recreate, and relieve the pressures on neighborhoods and downtowns that we are feeling increasingly.

    In conclusion, Hilda, I do think that your family’s business is reputable and good, and have never thought or said differently. I certainly did not mean to insult you, but just to tell it as I see it, a quality you have in large supply.

  6. Thom McBride,
    Let the market prevail? So you’re happy with the development of the former Carriage Shops and everything should look like that? Who needs sidewalks or a place to park anyway?

  7. Ira:
    I, and others, have asked you to document your assertions with concrete evidence. Please publish a list of four bedroom units that rent for $6000. Prove to me that they represent the “majority” of Amherst rental properties. When you have that list, tell me what the expenses are for the same units! What is the assessed valuation?

    You aren’t insulting me or my family, but calling ALL property owners predatory including those who built and still maintain apartment complexes built in the 1960s that provide the preponderance of rental housing in Amherst.

  8. see this graphic: https://irabryck.com/amherstbeds

    • I didn’t call ALL property owners predatory, I said that (according to available stats, though there is no push by the town or university to collaborate to reveal the true numbers, each saying the other has the hidden info) the majority of houses in Amherst are rentals (60%, from available data) and most of those (anecdotally, and according to available stats) are student rentals, and according to many reports from students and published info, anything new is in the $1500/bed range, with older houses trending up to those levels, with unmeasured/unmanaged over-occupancy (note cars parked in yards and backyard parking lots), and way too few inspections, according to the town, with landlords pushing back on the need and expense for inspections.
    • Rental housing is a business, and expenses are a factor that must be figured in to pricing. For an older rental house to trend towards the$1500/bed “anchor” (price set by what the customer must pay, whether good value or not) is hard to resist, and adds pure profit to the bottom line for such investment houses.

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