Opinion: Dispatch from an Amherst Neighborhood under Siege


Parking in front of student rental property Photo: Art Keene

The following column appeared previously in the Amherst Bulletin.

Alex Kent

My wife and I live in downtown Amherst in a house that I purchased over 22 years ago. We love living downtown: the proximity to the Amherst Cinema, to restaurants, stores, and coffee shops. In our neighborhood, we are well known by other long-term residents. We enjoy our monthly neighborhood potluck brunch and the simple pleasure of running into a neighbor during our walks through town. The residential streets in our neighborhood look lovely, with gardens tended with pride each summer by the year-round residents. Passersby often comment on the beauty of the neighborhood.

Then comes the last week of August. Our streets are no longer so lovely once the UMass undergraduates return for the new school year. Within hours of their arrival, the blissful quiet of summer is shattered by the late-night sound of thumping house parties, the hooting and loud chatter of marauding, drunken students, and the near constant revving of cars at all hours. Our streets are now decorated with plastic cups, beer cans, and pizza boxes. A few nights ago, we saw a young man grab a small table which had been placed on the side of the road for the sheer pleasure of hurling it into the street and smashing it to pieces. He continued on his way with his drunken friends. They congratulated him on this act of destruction. This behavior continues each weekend throughout the year, subsiding only slightly when the weather makes it too cold for students to roam the streets.

The noise and the mess have become too much for my wife and me, and with heavy hearts, we are seriously considering moving away from Amherst. Most likely, we’ll sell our home to one of the local landlords. Our beautiful 130-year old house will immediately be stuffed to the rafters with students willing to pay top-dollar rents (we’ve received numerous unsolicited offers from eager buyers). With our departure, the rout of our corner of downtown Amherst will be nearly complete.

To be clear: I am not anti-student; I am against student behavior. Here are a few practical ways to deal with the kind of behavior that is making Amherst unlivable for long-term residents:

(1) Enforce the four unrelated persons limit for absentee landlord rental properties. With six tenants and seven tenants, respectively, the rental properties both to the immediate north and south of my home are in flagrant violation of the town bylaw. Such violations are far from unique and enforcement of the bylaw is lax at best.

(2) Institute a surcharge on landlords who place more than four unrelated people in any one rental unit. I propose $200 per month for each additional tenant. Thus, a rental unit with seven tenants (three tenants over the cap set by the bylaw) would generate an additional $7,200 in revenue for the Town of Amherst.

(3) Use the additional funds obtained through landlord surcharges to pay for downtown police patrols on foot or by bicycle. What happened to cops walking a beat? At various times, we have seen cops on bicycles or even walking a beat in downtown Amherst, but that seems to be a thing of the past. Officers need not be armed, but they should be present to patrol the streets overnight. Maybe there would be less hooting and hollering, less destruction of property, and fewer crumpled beer cans in the morning.

(4) Enforce anti-littering laws. What a joy it would be to see someone who drops a crumpled beer can on the ground be told by a patrol officer, “Hey, buddy, pick that up and put it in the trash!”

(5) Reduce private car traffic.  Excessive vehicular traffic in Amherst greatly reduces residents’ quality of life. UMass should make it much harder for students to park on campus. This simple change would yield a significant reduction in gratuitous car trips between student housing and the campus. Students who reside within a certain radius of the campus should be denied on-campus parking permits. Instead, students can walk, ride bicycles, or take the bus to campus. (Obviously, exceptions should be made for students with disabilities or other extraordinary circumstances.)

(6) Restrict renters’ ability to park their cars on street. Landlords should be required to provide on-premises parking for each of their tenants who have cars. Thus, if there are four tenants in a dwelling unit, the landlord should provide four off-street parking spaces. When there are more than four tenants in a dwelling unit, on-street parking permits should be provided, but only at a high cost. Currently, a resident permit with Amherst vehicle registration is $100. Increase the fee to $1,000 per year and we would see a dramatic reduction in vehicles parked on residential streets. (Again, exceptions should be made for individuals who have limited mobility.) These increased charges should also apply to the residents of all of the recently-built five-story properties, buildings which were built with limited or non-existent on-premises parking. Fines for parking violations should also be increased to discourage scofflaws.

(7) Curtail the number of student rentals in residential neighborhoods. Going forward, no more than one student rental property in ten houses on any street should be permitted. Where there are fewer than ten houses on a street, there should be no student rentals. It takes a certain critical mass of undergraduate renters to ruin the peace of a neighborhood for long-term residents. Where long-term residents greatly outnumber undergraduate renters, students quickly learn that they must be civil and behave themselves.

I enjoy living in a place that is enlivened by the energy of thousands of young people and their teachers. I consciously chose to live in a college town for that reason. But I did not choose to live in a place where young people are allowed to run amok, destroying so much of what makes Amherst a good place to live.

Alex Kent is a resident of Amherst.

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17 thoughts on “Opinion: Dispatch from an Amherst Neighborhood under Siege

  1. Alex,

    Thank you for putting this here. We read it in the Gazette. We agree with all your points. The only one that would be different for us is the partying started on Thursday and went through Sunday in what we call the year of hell. We will never put up with that again. We are staying hopeful that the decision makers are getting the picture that many long term residents want to be here but can’t put up with the behavior, the number of vehicles and the noise. We hope they will implement many of your ideas. We have mentioned many of them. If not, we probably will be joining your exit.

    Regards, Jeff & Paula

  2. Alex, your item (6), is good, but maybe it needs to be coupled with better ways for many of those car-driving students to get to and from the major metropolitan areas where their families live?

    The recent $108,000,000 federal grant toward improving east-west rail service in Massachusetts is one step in that direction.

    If you change your mind and decide to stay in Amherst, let’s work together getting reconnected to a usable passenger rail system.

  3. I am so sorry you no longer consider your neighborhood livable. Please consider not further contributing to the problem by selling your home to a family or to the Amherst Community Land Trust if you do decide to sell. You might be forfeiting a small bit of your profit, but will be helping your neighbors who remain in their homes and a family who wants to enjoy the benefits you have experienced living near downtown. I do agree with your points about improving the quality of life of non-students who live near the center of town. Thank you for making them.

  4. Their are positives and negatives to have a large university nearby. My first thought Amherst wouldn’t be lovely if Umass wasn’t here. We wouldn’t have an economy. We wouldn’t have downtown businesses.

    I think what needs to be addressed is student behaviors and the University over enrolling , and landlords taking advantage ofTHE housing crisis at Umass making the rental prices so high that the students can’t make the rent with the 4 per house limits. Amherst doesn’t have a person who follows up on rental properties which I think would be good! While property managers in our area are good at only having 4 per house on the lease, that doesn’t stop the students from sharing bedrooms to be able to pay the rent.

    I don’t know if Amherst still has the registration of gatherings like it useD to. Someone to follow up with the group. That registers these parties to ensure the mess is cleaned up.
    Maybe reaching out to Greek life and getting them their community service hours by picking up liter would be a good avenue.

    Overall, being a teen away from parents for the first time and group behaviors coupled with the loss of consideration for others adds to all this.

    On a complete side note – the university has been here for a long time which is exactly why we live on the edge .. we don’t want the noise – the litter etc and anyone new moving into neighborhoods around the university or anywhere in Amherst should be looking around the area – where they are thinking of buying so they are prepared for September – May.
    I have no sympathy for new residents that buys house near Umass and the complain.

    22 years ago when Mr Kent bought Umass was not packing them in. These problems need to be a community effort involving all parties To even make a dent

  5. Amherst would be Ware without UMass. If you moved here after 1960 you knew what you were getting

  6. Thanks to those who have read and commented on my column. To Maura’s suggestion about selling our house to the Amherst Community Land Trust: For the very reasons we are considering selling our house, we could not in good conscience have a family purchase a house that has almost completely been engulfed by houses owned by LLC’s.
    I learned this week that UMass has offered to pay for litter cleanup in the neighborhoods affected by weekend partying. I find this approach unsatisfactory, bordering on insulting. It feels a bit like getting punched in the face and then receiving an icepack from one’s attacker. Wouldn’t it be better to ensure that students don’t trash our neighborhoods in the first place?
    I completely agree with Rob Kusner: Massachusetts desperately needs east-west rail, but $108 million barely moves the needle in that direction. I’ll be impressed when I see budgets in the of dollars.

  7. Agreed: we need to see passenger rail reconstruction “budgets in the [BILLIONS ] of dollars.”

    But $108 million is a start (to get rail speeds up to near Peter Pan Bus levels, at least).

  8. Thank you for the concerns raised. Perhaps, additionally, the town, with the university, could invest in free parking, yet on the perimeter, for resident students and also help launch self-organizing community-based peacekeeping.

  9. It would seem that Mr. Kent’s advice to someone feeling besieged by LLC rental property is not just to give up but to actively discourage and even prevent (by excluding from the pool of potential buyers a class of permanent residents) an attempt to counter the takeover of a neighborhood by rental LLC’s. An understandable, but disappointing, stance – one that becomes frustratingly self-perpetuating as the loss of one house contributes to the engulfing of the next, rendering that one off limits to a family, too. And so on.

    Why not let people searching for a home in Amherst make their own choice about that situation – fully informed about the hazards, of course? And if it turns out that no family is willing to take on the challenge of living in a besieged neighborhood, and the only option is to sell out to an LLC bidder, consider donating to the Amherst Community Land Trust the excess paid by the LLC over what a family could have paid so that some other house in a not-yet-lost neighborhood can be made permanently available to generations of families?

    To Mr. Kent and others in similar situations throughout town: the Amherst Community Land Trust would be glad to discuss options for your house with you. We may not be able to help everyone, but let’s not give up on Amherst yet.

  10. 2023-22=2001

    You bought your house in 2001 and I remember what Amherst was like in 2001 because I lived there at the time.

    First, Frat Row was still there — there were fraternities at 375, 387, 389, 395, and 401 North Pleasant Street — UMass bought them and tore them down in 2006. There was the Boltwood Tavern or something like that on the corner of Boltwold that got so many noise complaints that it was eventually shut down, I forget the specifics.

    There was the annual Barney Blowout that finally ended in 2014 with 73 arrests, there was the annual Hobart Howdown that ended with a police riot circa 2003, and house parties too numerous to mention.

    That was the conditions of the town that you moved into, that is what the neighborhood was like when you purchased your house It was before UMass went full bore fascist, and even if that approach isn’t working (I didn’t think it would), conditions were no worse when you bought the house. (As mentioned above, it isn’t like you bought it in 1960 — although even then there were fraternities all along North Pleasant Street.)

    And as to fraternities, it needs to be mentioned how many fraternities have closed in the past 22 years — not just the five that were demolished, but the two that became the Econ Department and a couple more I am forgetting. They had *loud* parties that attracted not only all of the UM undergrads but students from Smith & MHC, I know because a 19-year-old from one of those women’s colleges was raped in the fraternity that became the Econ Dept. UMass (perhaps wisely, perhaps not) eliminated these so-called “open parties”, restricting them to invited guests and theoretically reducing the availability of alcohol.

    I say “theoretically” becuase this was when “pregaming” started — the practice of getting totally intoxicated before going to an event where alcohol wasn’t present, and this created a whole raft of other, arguably worse, problems — but I digress.

    You complain about finding cups on your lawn — I remember homeowners complaining about finding human feces on theirs. That’s what things were like back then…

    And you’re complaining about them getting *worse*?

  11. As to passenger rail to Boston, what a lot of people don’t realize is that Amherst once had it. The railtrail was once the Central Massachusetts Railroad and it went all the way into Cambridge where it continued into Boston’s North Station on what are now MBTA tracks.

    It was abandoned after the Hurricane of 1938 as not being worth repairing, the B&M at this point had the Hoosac Tunnel for trains going west, the Hell’s Gate Bridge for trains going to NYC, and the roundabout Greenfield/Northampton/Amherst route for freight bound for Amherst. As to passenger service, there was no market for it anymore, so the washed-out tracks were never replaced.

    The 150-year-old railbed is still there, it’d have to be straightened considerably if you wanted to run high speed trains on it (and you’d have to deal with road crossings) but it’s there. It would be the ideal route for a train to Boston because unlike Springfield, you’re not going through Worcester and Framingham on congested trackage into an equally congested South Station.

    The problem is that it would cost $5M/mile to lay new track, and that’s not including repairing the washouts which would include installing proper drainage, nor the engineering work to bring the route into 21st Century standards so that you could even have track rated for 80 MPH, let alone faster. Oh, and you’d also have to eliminate the bike trails, both Northampton/Amherst but also in the Cambridge area — and deal with irate bicyclists…

    It’s not worth a BILLION Dollars to bring back passenger rail. There isn’t ever going to be the demand to justify that — even with UMass, and UMass is going to shrink starting 2026 when the children not born in 2008 don’t show up as freshmen.

    Reality is that no train can go faster than the train in front of it, and reality is that any service to Boston over existing tracks — even if you can avoid the freight trains — is going to be behind the local MBTA service from both Worcester and Framingham. A lot of the tracks that used to exist were lost when the Mass Pike was built and there isn’t the land for more. It ain’t gonna happen…

    98.77 miles from Northampton to North Cambridge,

  12. Amherst already has laws to restrict noise, public drinking, students’ parking on the street, the number of students per single family house, and to prohibit littering and trash on lawns. There is supposed to be a functional relationship between Amherst police and the university to discipline off-campus behavior, but it is also failing. What Amherst lacks, in part, is enforcement, or, evidently, even the will to enforce its laws.

    As I have put forward in the past, Amherst needs a lot line-to-lot line minimum distance between single family homes converted to student rentals. This strategy has works in other college towns across the country to limit the influx of students into residential neighborhoods, and helps claw back housing from landlords and LLC’s and put it into the market for families. However, this necessitates that the town must track student rentals as a separate category of housing, and record violations of building codes and behavioral standards, which some Town Council members worry might be “discriminatory”, or that it would deter investors.

    What Amherst must have to control student housing, and the problems associated with it in terms of behavior and in terms of the distortions it causes in the housing market, is a majority on Town Council who acknowledge and want to fix the problem by passing new ordinances and enforcing laws already on the books. Remember this on November 7, and go vote!

  13. There are three things to remember about student housing.

    First, if 2020 wasn’t enough of a warning, Amherst needs to be worried about what will happen in the Fall of 2026 (and for at least a decade thereafter) — starting in 2026 there will be a severe shortage of 18-year-olds (so much so that there is talk of bringing back the military draft) and it is predicted that half of the colleges and universities in the country will close or merge by 2030. While Hampshire is a visible example of a college at risk, what’s not being said is that state legislatures (with ever-increasing elder care expenses) are expected to close and consolidate state university campi.

    So if Amherst complains enough — and encourages UMass to be even more draconian — the students might simply stop showing up and that would destroy Amherst’s economy. It would be like what the development of plastic toys did to Winchendon a century ago.

    The Commonwealth may even “consolidate” and close the Amherst campus — it’s abandoned physical plants before, Northampton State Hospital and the Belchertown State School come to immediate mind.

    Second, a lot of the misbehavior blamed on the UMass students is actually your own (or neighbor’s) high school students. Have a candid conversation sometime with a police officer who trusts you — high school students are no small part of the problem, it’s just that their parents step in on their behalf. It’s far easier to blame it on UMass.

    And third, the UMass students have parents too — and their parents are going to be calling the 200 members of the General Court (state legislature) who are then going to be asking Whitmore questions that Whitmore doesn’t want to answer. If UMass gets any more draconian, it’s going to have major public relations problems and more difficulty recruiting students in an increasingly competitive market. And that goes back to the lesson of 2020 — without any Federal bailout money.

    One final thought — most of the student housing is highly leveraged with little equity and student rental payments necessary for landlord debt service. So think of it *not* being rented and remaining vacant. The upside-down owners would simply walk away from it, the LLCs that own it declaring bankruptcy, and then it’s banks owning it. One need only look at the problems Amherst had with Brittany Manor (now Southpoint & Boulders) 30 years ago to see what it would be facing.

  14. Ed Cutting —
    You make a number of salient points, but the state abandoning UMass Amherst’s physical plant is highly unlikely, for many reasons — reputational and recent investments among them. The demographic cliff is certainly a concern for all of higher ed, but the risks are not evenly spread among higher ed institutions. The Massachusetts higher ed system includes community colleges, state universities, and the UMass state university system.

    Also, I simply disagree that families and students who are looking at campuses to send their kids are looking with disfavor on campuses that have more restrictions on partying, behavior, etc. That’s not even something a lot of families or kids are thinking about — they are, properly, considering cost, academic reputation, academics, etc. Where their friends are, what the dorms are like, recreational facilities — all of these are higher-impact lifestyle criteria than “do the local police crack down on partying in neighborhoods”.

    The PR problems UMass has had have been related to Blarney blow-outs getting out of hand more than to “draconian” policing. I’m 100% supportive of student civil rights — but let’s not kid ourselves that over-aggressive policing has a negative effect on student applications / admissions.

    Finally, one commentator in this or another thread said it’s not students — it’s behavior. Behavior is fostered by material circumstances. A bunch of young people with a lot of loose time on their hands, with access to and little experience with integrating intoxicants into their lives (thanks, prohibition), consolidated into housing environments without larger social structures — well, that’s a recipe for unbalanced, disordered, antisocial behavior. If we want to establish functioning neighborhoods, we have to have functioning, multi-age neighborhoods, and find ways to integrate the large numbers of young people into our communities.
    * More in-law apartments in farther-flung neighborhoods (I’m looking at you, south and east amherst), with better public transit and biking options.
    * More restrictions and disincentives to convert large swaths of neighborhoods into student ghettos.
    * Definitely more restrictions on converting homes into party-houses.
    * Overall, thoughtful regulation of rentals to encourage local rental ownership by home owners who are also in Amherst and have a stake in its quality of life.
    * Patrolling by CRESS (not police) would be great ….

    We’ve heard over and over again that people in downtown neighborhoods are being targeted by investment offers. I’m seeing more and more single-family houses flip in my adjacent-to-downtown neighborhood. There’s a financial incentive to the individual home-owner who’s being driven out of the neighborhood. Can the Town (with support from campuses) purchase restrictions / easements on homes, when a home is sold, to gain additional rights over properties, while countering the financial benefits being offered by the investment developers? And, can we make it more expensive for the investment developers to operate so that it’s less worth it to them?

    Laura Quilter

  15. Mr. Ed Cutting, M.Ed, It may not be to your liking but Amherst is not a mill town in which if the workers don’t toe the line, the factory is going to pull up stakes and move. Anyone with eyes can look at the massive physical plant of the university and see that. With the impending demographic cliff, UMass is going to have to “right size” as UMass president Marty Meehan has put it, but UMass at Amherst isn’t going anywhere. This is the same alarmist “the sky is falling” claptrap we’ve heard about rental permitting, limits on the number of students in a single family house and any other attempt to deal with student rentals. Amherst has a serious problem — its year round population is being displaced by students which the University refuses to house. The University either has to reduce its enrollment or increase its housing stock. And it’s well past time for Amherst to institute minimal distance requirements like other college towns have done long ago. Steve Bloom, MFA.

  16. Ed Cutting, Ed.D:
    Getting UMass to uphold its own student behavior polices, and the town to enforce its own laws and regulations, is not draconian. It is common decency and common sense. Expecting students to be respectful of neighbors, especially after 10:00 or 11:00 PM, to adhere to speed limits on streets their excise taxes do not help to maintain, to avoid littering, to not park their vehicles on lawns, to not stagger down town streets in alcoholic stupors, etc., etc. is not a big ask.
    One reason students “go away” to college is to learn how to live own their own as adults. Part of this learning curve includes drinking and carousing to excess, activities they’d prefer to engage in without their parents’ watchful, judgemental eyes. And most parents would rather have it that way, too, truth be told.
    Yes, High School students can display bad behavior. There are a few hundred of them in Amherst. There are around 30,000 college students. The numerical disparity undercuts your argument.
    True, back in the days when UMass went by the nickname ZooMass, things were not great. However there were fewer students and a lot fewer student rentals encroaching on neighborhoods. Regulations that cracked down on things like the Blarney Blowout and the Hobart Hoedown were a start, but only just a start, and it didn’t result in students dropping out to go elsewhere.
    If there is consolidation of UMass campuses, it is not too likely that Amherst will be vacated. It would make much more sense, if this is to happen at all, for UMass Boston to shed some high priced real estate, which is why Amherst, not Boston, is the “flagship campus”. Fretful hand-wringing about UMass Amherst shuttering its doors is just and only that.
    As for LLCs buying up properties and then renting them at exorbitant rates, this is happening across the country, from trailer parks to upscale neighborhoods. The problem is just especially acute in college towns like Amherst, and it’s past time for local government to step up on the side of the town’s permanent residents. It points to the greater, longer term societal problem of wealth being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. Real estate tax policies, the elimination of the inheritance tax, and usorious lending rates are turning America into a nation of landed gentry and serfs. We should all be more than happy to see a few LLCs be forced into selling off their rental properties to families who are now struggling in vain to enter the housing market and build equity. Maybe these investors could redirect their capital toward the stock market, where it would help to grow and strengthen our corporations.

  17. To Laura Quilter’s point: “There’s a financial incentive to the individual home-owner who’s being driven out of the neighborhood. ” Exactly. (In fact, I feel that all of Ms. Quilter’s comments are exactly on point.) After suffering through over 20 years of neighborhood disturbances and unwelcome transformation in which undergraduate students are the proximate cause (strongly emphasizing that there are deeper causes that are complex and difficult to disentangle), why would I NOT want to be justly compensated for having to sell my house and leave the town I have come to call my home? And how could I in good conscience sell my house to a family, putting them in the middle of “a bunch of young people with a lot of loose time on their hands, with access to and little experience with integrating intoxicants into their lives…. consolidated into housing environments without larger social structures”? Precisely: I could not have said it better myself.

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