Opinion: A Vision for Housing in Amherst 


Photo: istock

by Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney

This column appeared previously in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

We envision for Amherst the energy of a robust student population in a healthy balance with a diverse population of year-round residents. Is this a vision shared by all?

Perhaps not. Advocates for more on-campus housing are countered by one key factor. Besides our institutions of higher learning, the business of Amherst is student housing. It has been suggested by property managers in town that if UMass were to house substantially more students on campus there would be a large impact on the economy of Amherst, as there is little industry/economy outside of housing and real estate.

Perhaps naive on our part, but we hadn’t connected the dots – that for some, more on-campus housing is not good for business – it translates to fewer “customers” for off-campus rental properties. The University can continue to benefit from enrollment growth when private developers build and house their students. Town government will continue to provide services and maintain infrastructure, whether Amherst is a town with a 60:40, 80:20, or even 90:10 ratio of students to non-students. The only constituency that has a stake in maintaining a robust year-round population is us — the year-round residents of Amherst.

The 2020 U.S. Census revealed that Amherst’s non-student population declined over the previous ten years. In fact, it’s been steadily declining since 1990.

An August 10, 2023, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy article states: “…. in Amherst, where nearly 60 percent of the town’s 39,000 residents are students …..young families have had a harder time finding an affordable place to live: despite a rising [student] population, the number of adults aged 25–44 plunged by 45 percent between 1990 and 2010.”

This demographic trend is reflected in our declining K-12 enrollment. Since 2005, ARMS enrollment declined by 39 precent and ARHS by 36 percent. A 2018 Amherst School Committee Enrollment Working Group report concluded that “Amherst has less ‘family-friendly’ housing than we once did.” The report specifically cited “former family housing being converted to rental housing for students” as a contributing factor to our schools’ declining enrollment.

Amherst is a town of approximately 17,000 non-student residents.  Although UMass houses about 14,000 students on campus, each year over 12,000 students who are unable to secure on-campus accommodations must find housing in Amherst and surrounding communities. In a town as small as ours, the thousands of students who are forced, each year, to secure off-campus accommodations place enormous strain on the local housing market. Fewer homes are left available for year-round residents, including university staff.

The incentives to build housing to rent to students – at up to $1,000 or more per bed per month – results in little to no privately-financed building for non-student households. Developers are up front that their business model is not to build condominiums at a healthy, one-time profit, but to build luxury student rental housing that reaps rewards year in and year out.

Since 2015, Amherst has permitted 862 new housing units (mostly for students), only 82 of which are single-family homes. During this same time, absentee investors have continued to purchase single-family homes and convert them to group rental houses. Several current Town Councilors have called for an increase in the number of unrelated individuals permitted to rent a single dwelling unit, which allows for an even greater monthly return on investment.

Town Council should prioritize maintaining a healthy, sustainable balance between our year-round and student residents, even if that means advocating for not increasing per unit occupancy, and for UMass to house more of its students on campus and “right-size” its enrollment in the face of a declining college age population. The University could also enhance our year-round population through strong support of attainable housing for the thousands of faculty and staff currently unable to live in Amherst – prime customers for affordable and in-town housing.

Our town’s changing demographic is a vitally important lens through which Town Council policies and decisions should be evaluated – we should ask if a particular decision helps to reverse the trend of a declining non-student population or exacerbate it? Let’s strive to be a town in balance, where those who work in Amherst can afford to live in Amherst.  

Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney are Amherst Town Councilors

Spread the love

12 thoughts on “Opinion: A Vision for Housing in Amherst 

  1. This is a terrific opinion piece, thank you for sharing. This touches on some of the forces we are witnessing in our micro-economy, that are also felt on an a macro level.

    We have not been building enough housing in our town, county, state or country.

    On a Macro level, Maura Healey identifies that the state of Massachusetts could build 200,000 more homes that would be absorbed by the demand and Governor Healey’s administration has a goal to try to work towards that over the next 10 years. There are economists that say the country has enough demand to absorb between 3,000,000 – 5,000,000 homes.

    On a Micro level, there was an article that came out in the last year that identified that Hampshire County has the demand to build 1,500 units and they could be occupied by people looking for housing.

    I think we are starting to catch up with some of the housing demand in the Amherst Area with the amount of multi-family development that has been constructed to support the demand for that type of transient housing. The lens that I look through is that of an Amherst native that is active in property management. I have seen a number of our rentals convert from student housing to owner-occupied housing. The rents are not keeping up with the costs to maintain some of this dated inventory that I consider to be the peripherals of rental demand (South Amherst, Hadley, Pelham, Shutesbury, Leverett, etc.) People want to be close to amenities like shopping, school, work, and public transportation. Residents were forced to rent in the “family” neighborhoods by default because there wasn’t enough inventory that met their needs/wants. Now that inventory is being built and the demand for the single family dwelling still exists, but it doesn’t have the same volume of candidates as it once had. which will suppress the rate of increase on the rents.

    I appreciate you identifying that we have only built 82 single family homes since 2015. It is expensive to build. To give you a few examples, there were costs identified for the Valley CDC project on Montague Road, Pulpit Hill and Ball lane. The number was $17,000,000 to build 15 duplexes. Even with the quantities of scale, it still cost $566,666 to build those units and that doesn’t include the cost of land. Springfield has another project in the South End that is $23,000,000 to build 40 units which costs $575,000 per unit, again, not including the cost of land.

    Does Amherst have an economy outside of academia that can support a substantial amount $600,000 units? How do we create new single family housing? Where would you expect it to be?

    Another question I have is how do we retain all of this intelectual talent that comes through our higher education institutions to create a year round economy that is vibrant for people who want to enjoy what this town offers year round?

    Hopefully we can keep this conversation going, because it is an important one.

  2. I am pretty sure it’s not $600k per dorm room and we need more dorm beds on the UMASS campus. Students want to live on campus and it improves the quality of student experience. Town Council and the Town Manager must raise this issue with UMASS administration. Sometimes the best solution is the simplest.

  3. I have heard that Boston University considers their housing program a major profit center for them. When our son attended there, he was in BU housing all 4 years, and they were busy building more and more, including for graduate students. See https://www.bu.edu/housing/

  4. Hi Janet,

    I agree with you, it is not $600k per dorm room because that doesn’t provide them with an individual bath, and kitchen. There isn’t even a kitchen in the dormitory at all, just microwave and mini refrigerator. The only price I saw for the Fieldstone building was $200,000,000 but at the time of that article it was for 623 beds so it cost around $321,027.28 per bedroom… still not cheap,


    I have a feeling by the end of construction the costs were higher than that.

    I still wish that we could organically find ways to provide opportunities for a 12 month economy in our community and find space to build more homes for our residents. Any ideas where to build more neighborhoods?

  5. Thank you, Mr. Crossman, I appreciate your comments and would appreciate the chance to speak further regarding strategies for providing workforce and family housing.

  6. Hi Pam and Jennifer –

    Your beef seems to be with student behavior yet you consistently attempt to limit the availability of rental housing in your UMass/Downtown neighborhood. It’s not a sensible response to the problem.

    Amherst has a serious housing crisis. Housing availability that’s affordable for rent and to buy is a question of supply and demand. Your efforts consistently squish supply and drive up demand and price because you live near UMass and don’t like the impact of students in your neighborhood.

    When you

    – live a block from UMass and downtown

    -try to limit the amount of rental housing in your neighborhood by suggesting 300′ distances between rental buildings;

    – encourage the concept of (and the 501c3 organization) stopping the conversion of single family homes in your neighborhood into more equitable and available rentals;

    – make it your campaign platform to stop rental units;

    -attempt to mandate through anti-growth zoning downtown that a shed housing a bakery; an old cape house gutted for a flower shop; and a one-story concrete block building seling bagels always remain in front of potentially 4 story housing immediately behind it;

    The result isn’t better student behavior. Or fewer students walking between downtown and your house and where they live on campus.

    The result is a worse housing crisis with fewer rental units and more unaffordable options for families. And you still haven’t addressed occasional student noise and red cups in the morning in your neighborhood.

    Considering this quote you use: “An August 10, 2023, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy article states: “…. in Amherst, where nearly 60 percent of the town’s 39,000 residents are students …..young families have had a harder time finding an affordable place to live: despite a rising [student] population, the number of adults aged 25–44 plunged by 45 percent between 1990 and 2010.””

    At a time we should all be working on finding more housing options, not demanding fewer. Let’s work toward addressing student behavior. Not limiting housing for people who can’t afford to buy a home .

  7. Hi Cinda,

    We agree that student behavior is a major problem. Just look at what happened on Harkness Rd this weekend. But it’s not just that or not just in the area around Umass. Where we are, (not near Umass) there are already 20 cars surrounding us from three rental houses, (yes, one is allowed 8 to be clear) some in their driveways, some in the road around our circle so the town is already allowing more students to live in these houses (not regulating) than allowed.

    You want to add to this? Add the visitors, parties, Ubers, doors slamming all night like they are already?

    We agree it’s also a supply and demand issue. The demand has been created by Umass. They have saturated the family neighborhoods with student rentals taking away the opportunity for families to buy.

    What is wrong with Janet’s idea of more student housing on campus? From what I’ve read, it’s where they want to be.

    What would you like to do about student behavior?

    Regards, Jeff & Paula

  8. I am feeling a nasty split here in Amherst. The town has changed and will continue to change. School enrollment in our grammar schools is declining. School enrollment at UMass is increasing. We are loosing families and elders who cannot afford to live in town. We protect farmland. We are not protecting family neighborhoods, especially those close to the town center where families can walk to town, the cinema, the library, and the new park.
    We need to work in a collaborative manner to move forward. There are many challenges today. There will be more in the future. We need to work together. I feel an old protest song rising here in Amherst….”Which Side Are You On.” We do not need to be on a side. We need to work collaboratively together.
    Jennifer Taub has been my Town Council representative for the last two years. She has been fair and open minded. She tries to build bridges. She listens to her constituents and seeks more information/knowledge in making her decisions. She is not anti- renter. She has been an advocated for families. Most teachers, police, firefighters, DPW workers and others employed by our town cannot afford rentals for themselves and their families at $1,000.00+per bedroom.

  9. Well said Nancy. This problem wasn’t created by Jennifer or Town Meeting as a recent op ed suggested. The U gives and it takes. There are many more students than available units. I have heard over and over that if we build enough apartment buildings and change zoning to allow more rental units all over town, the cost of rentals will go down and Amherst will be more affordable to more income levels. I get that logic, but has anyone done any studies on how many units it will take to allow that to happen? And why would developers and landlords want that to happen? Doesn’t the same logic mean that the ideal number of units for developers and landlords will keep prices high; that too many units will cause the prices to fall. So far, all that construction has resulted in higher prices. A landlord I know put it succinctly: to paraphrase: “if I rent an apartment out for $900/month and the new buildings get $1500 for the same size apartment, then I can raise my rents to $1200 and students will think it’s a bargain.” Obviously, there is a tipping point (unless the U continues to add more students) and if that tipping point is ever achieved, it seems construction will slow down or stop, and we’ll be left with high prices, diminishing family numbers and degraded neighborhoods. There have to be better ways to deal with this problem! PPP’s on campus seems like one

  10. Here is my proposal: 1) UMass builds more on-campus housing and reaches 80% on-campus students. Students are happier, as studies show, and there is less pressure on neighborhoods. 2) PB and PD do some planning and work toward increased housing density in village centers and existing apt complexes, implementing the Master Plan–as well as developing a University Village along University Drive, and 3) Town Council adopts regulations limiting the number of student rentals in any neighborhood–also implementing the Master Plan which calls for mixed neighborhoods, by income, age, ethnicity, etc. Provisions have to be made to ensure in all these actions that low and moderate income residents, including students, can afford to live in neighborhoods, village centers, University Village and on-campus. (Many students in college towns are forced to choose between rent, food , utilities and tuition.) There is no one fix.

  11. Student behavior is not the only issue. Landlords do not invest in “properties” in the same way that homeowners invest in “homes”; there’s minimal (or no) attention to upkeep, plantings, and so forth. Having an untidy sprawl of cars in the driveway and/or street also shift the appearance of the neighborhood. All those cars, from densely packed houses, makes the streets less welcoming to little kids.

    My street, Red Gate Lane, has no sidewalks. It’s already an issue, because Red Gate and Hills are cut-throughs from Main Street to Strong Street, leading more traffic through the neighborhood than just neighbors, and because it’s a straight shot, you get faster traffic. Without sidewalks, kids and elders (and anyone, really) are at heightened risk.

  12. At one point just two-three years ago the University released a “Request for Information” to developers to build thousands of new residential units on campus. There was definitely interest. What happened? Why did the University give up on this? Students want it. The Town wants it. Developers were interested. Hopefully the new chancellor will resurrect this proposal SOON!

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.