Updated Letter: Town Needs To Be More Assertive With UMass To Resolve Student Housing Crisis


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

The following letter was send to Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman, The Amherst Planning Board and Planning Department on August 30, 2023. See appended update below the signature.

Tonight you’re discussing how the town will best manage problems and solutions with UMass.

I’d like to cast my vote for more assertiveness. The relationship between the town and UMass needs to be win/win. That is not how it has been balanced, till now, considering how UMass’ official position has been that off-campus housing is not their problem. 

Our deteriorating roads also haven’t been their concern. Paving costs $1 million per mile, so we will never repair our roads well enough without charging a user fee on a major user.

There is also the conflict-of-interest problem. It may be unavoidable, but many people have had UMass jobs and also a town role, that created “role confusion” that leads to inadequate on-campus housing, not matching the growth in enrollment at the University. That leads to remote investment companies buying up private homes and converting them into student houses, and tall private dorms with no parking replacing chunks of our downtown.

I feel the discussions between the town and the university that did not happen back then caused several of our problems today.

The town and UMass need an ongoing and robust negotiation that builds the Amherst of tomorrow. We need to learn from the college towns that once fought five-story dorms downtown and now are too exhausted to fight 12 story dorms. 

Also, more PILOT! UMass’ payment to the town is paltry, compared to comparable universities and their towns and cities, according to the Town / Gown webinars that town staff and community have been watching, with great interest, fear, and jealousy.

On tonight’s other topic, Planning for Housing Growth, I am glad to see a return of collaborative brainstorming and planning. It’s a much more productive activity than examining complex proposals submitted to the planning department and planning board by town councilors.

I am in favor of Accessory Dwelling Units, but surprised how few have been built here. And surprisingly few owner-occupants who register to rent a unit in their home, presumably for 1 or 2 tenants. What is the best housing that meets our needs and doesn’t encourage outside investors who damage our neighborhoods? That is the question.

In an attempt to maximize profits, student housing investors might typically buy an already non-conforming house, with two apartments, and try to add another building to the property, legally allowing 12 people and their cars. May I point out the ZBA does not have to grant such a permit! They may grant one, if they determine the project is not detrimental in many listed ways.

Students and families all deserve better. Recently UMass students had a protest, insisting on more on-campus housing, bucking the conventional wisdom that students generally prefer living off campus. We need to assess all our needs, to find the best solutions, again, through vigorous ongoing negotiations.

We have the opportunity to create something creative, or we will end up where we’re now heading.

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.

Postscript To The Planning Board Meeting Of August 30, 2023

At last night’s planning board meeting there was a reference to how Ithaca has tried to manage the student housing issues caused by Cornell’s students flooding their housing market.

Years ago, I had a speaker at the UMass Family Business Center (that I ran for 25 years, producing several hundred educational dinner forums and other activities) Robert Frank, a noted behavioral economist and author.at Cornell.

We discussed Amherst’s housing issues, versus Ithaca’s, and he wrote me this:

(I’ve shared this many time but not in a while, and sending again, after the comment about Ithaca)

I thought you’d be interested. It may seem obvious to you, but this was years before our town leaders were saying any of this out loud.

Hello, Ira,

Your question about the effects of limiting occupancy in rental houses to three unrelated individuals: Ithaca has had exactly this regulation for many years. It was adopted with the goal of maintaining a stock of housing in the city that would be both affordable and attractive to families. 

When landlords are free to stuff 7-10 students into a house, the resulting revenue boosts the value of the house as an investment to a level far above what most families could afford. Simultaneously, it creates noise, litter, and parking problems that make the environment unattractive to families. As in many other markets, there is no presumption in an unregulated housing market that an invisible hand automatically produce outcomes that are best for the community as a whole.

Ithaca’s ordinance has been effective, but you should know that it requires vigilant enforcement. If landlords sensed that they could get away with violating it, the economic incentives to do so would be irresistible. 

Hope you can make something similar work in Amherst.

Robert Frank

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2 thoughts on “Updated Letter: Town Needs To Be More Assertive With UMass To Resolve Student Housing Crisis

  1. A reckoning on the steady degrading of quality of life for many Amherst residents is long overdue. Asking more from UMass is reasonable and so is putting on the brakes of the mostly unrestrained capitalism that is practiced in many neighborhoods.

  2. I grew up in Mill Valley apt back when there were many families living there. I went to Crocker farm school, Amherst regional, Middle and High school, attended Umass Amherst. I went to school with your sons and daughters, I now work at Umass and still cannot afford to live anywhere in Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, Hadley, Sunderland, Hatfield, Northampton, Easthampton. I have been priced out of my home, In the past I’d had to resort to subleasing room from students gone for the summer or a semester, and constantly needed to move every several months. Or sharing split living as a bedroom, or renting out the laundry room as a bedroom. Commuting 2 hours a day to Umass, staying with family in Windsor CT. It does feel like part of the community has been sold out for profit. The town has never cared much for the working class but lately it feels like the town is not even trying to pretend otherwise.

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