Opinion: One Solution to the Proliferation of Student Housing in Family Neighborhoods


Photo: webuyhouses.com

The following column appeared previously in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

John Varner

Trying to regulate student housing is a problem faced in many towns hosting large academic institutions. Websites touting the potential of individuals to make money by investing in single family homes which can be converted to student rentals, and LLCs eager to cash in on rentals of all sorts, are not making this easier. In Amherst, a “pro-development” faction on Town Council sees unbridled expansion of the student housing market as the economic salvation that will fill town coffers, (and perhaps their own bank accounts). These folks try to paint their political opposition as luddites lacking vision, or worse, as practitioners of discrimination.

For these pro-development people, I would suggest a brief quiz:

1.) How often are you roused from sleep by noisy neighbors?

2.) How often do cars park on lawns, or speed on your street, possibly endangering the kids in your neighborhood?

3.) How often does the maintenance of properties on your street concern you?

4.) How often do you find red plastic cups, or other beverage containers strewn about? 5.) How often do people urinate in your or your neighbors’ lawns?

6.) How often do you dread an annual turn-over of renters on your street?

7.) How far do you live from a student rental?

In Amherst, and many college towns, the answer to question 7 largely determines the answers to the first 6 questions.

In Amherst, the “real estate royalty” is trying to dismiss the concerns of residents living in neighborhoods where student rental conversions are metastasizing, and the town government is under-equipped and/or uninclined to enforce existing rules. Fortunately, there are solutions that offer some hope to those not making $1000+/bedroom off rental properties.

One of the most effective measures the town could enact would be a provision adopted years ago in towns like State College, PA, home of Penn State. That is enforcing a minimum distance, lot line-to-lot line for student rentals. State College did this many years ago. The town was zoned in a manner that reflected the existing density of student rentals. Some areas were “written off”, as already having an overwhelming presence of student rentals, some were areas at risk of being over-run, and some were deemed to be at low risk. Single family properties already converted to student rentals were grandfathered in until such time as their ownership changed, at which time they would come under the new regulations. After a couple iterations of trying various distancing schemes, the town arrived at a minimum distance, lot line to lot line, of 650’. This in effect limits the density of students renting single family rentals to 2/quarter mile of street or road. One result has been to reduce complaints about noise, litter, public indecency, etc. Another benefit has been clawing back single-family homes into the market for families, as either rentals or as stock to purchase, free from the bids of investors seeking to capitalize by charging exorbitant per-bedroom rents to students.

It is not discrimination to want to limit single family home student rentals, rather, it is a fair zoning practice that does not discriminate against residents already living in modest priced housing so that a few investors can enrich themselves. Students have different social needs, different schedules, and different standards of behavior from adults with or without families. Some of these differences are not necessarily bad, but they exist, and they create friction. Investors converting single family houses seldom lavish those rentals with remodeling upgrades, and usually seek to maximize profits by minimizing up-keep, which ultimately has an impact on property values. It is time for the Amherst pro-development faction living in upscale enclaves to acknowledge those facts, and take steps to protect the rest of the town’s residents.

John Varner is a resident of Amherst’s District 3.

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: One Solution to the Proliferation of Student Housing in Family Neighborhoods

  1. As a side note: there are many students who are both adults and who have families, especially if having familes=having children.

    Such a proposal also would almost certainly solidify control of the housing market by existing student housing landlords. It will raise rents as well.

    A policy paper for Penn State: https://academy.psu.edu/documents/current/policy-proposals/2018/affordable_housing.pdf

    There is a good argument for implementing high density and mixed use living areas in Amherst, both for affordability, student housing, and low to middle income families, but adherents to single-family zoning will generally find a way to restrict their pot-o-gold in the name of “town character.”

  2. Joseph Fattorusso>> Living in a neighborhood where investors are buying up properties for student rentals has a way of changing one’s perspective…

    Yes, families paying exorbitant rents is a concern. Do you believe students who have families can afford the same $1000-$1200/month/bedroom that landlords of student single family houses charge? Furthermore, “student housing” can be categorized to preclude families. Amherst already has a limit on the number of unrelated individuals living in single family houses (though it is poorly enforced). By pulling some single family houses back into the market for families, it would reduce the rents for the students with families you voice concerns for.

    There is a good argument for densifying downtown Amherst. As mentioned, State College basically wrote off a section of the town for such densification. Mixed income housing in areas that lend themselves to being built out is not what I am arguing against. Are the sterile, boxey apartments that are popping up in town mixed income? Will apartments where landlords can charge $1000/bedroom ever going to be “mixed income housing”? Student housing must somehow be separated from “mixed income” housing.

    The policy paper generated by Penn State is at odds with the head of zoning in State College, PA, with whom I have had lengthy conversations, and who supplied me with the 18 pages of regulations that State College adopted to deal with problems associated with the student housing conversion problem and related problems of landlord and student behavior (which I have passed on to Towen Council, without getting a response). Gee. Town-gown tensions exist outside Amherst…. (see also Boulder CO., Willmington DE, etc.) And, again, it is worth noting that Amherst is the smallest town in the country to host a flagship campus, which magnifies the problems associated with housing students.

    It is tiring to listen to people in upscale neighborhoods whining about how people in other neighborhoods are impeding progress by trying to protect the properties and neighborhoods they have invested and lived in for years from being over-run by investors trying to convert single family houses into their “pots of gold”. I personally do not regard my 1200 sq. ft. house as a pot of gold. It is a property where my wife and I have lived for 30 years, where we raised our daughter, where “improvement projects” have involved, literally, my own blood and sweat, and it is now at risk of being surrounded by investment properties that are not being well-maintained, housing students . Will the “town character” referred to be morphed into a rundown student enclave and toney developments like Amherst Woods, or should it include a diversity of housing that single families of modest means can afford?

  3. Hello Mr. Fattorusso,

    It seems you suggest that high density, mixed use apartment buildings are a good solution for affordable housing, in your comment, you say that “There is a good argument for implementing high density and mixed use living areas in Amherst, both for affordability, student housing, and low to middle income families”

    I would agree we need more housing opportunities for low to middle income families. Limiting, where and how many homes investors can outbid these families on is a step in the right direction when it comes to affordable housing and homeownership in town, so thanks for bringing that one up John.

    That being said, it seems somewhat surprising to hear you suggest that mixed use buildings and high density buildings are good for affordability for low to middle income families in town. Take a look at 11 East Pleasant Street, which is being built now. It is certainly a good case study for high density and mixed use. Rent for studio is nearly $2,000 per month, and goes up to $3,450 for an 869 square foot, 2 bed, one bath apartment with no outdoor space, no garage or parking, no porch and a small kitchenette. It seems unreasonable to me to suggest that a middle income family would find 3,450 per month for that space affordable. I know my family could not afford that, and most of my classmates could not either. Would you find that rent for a space at 11 East Pleasant space if affordable?

    Plus, most families will want some grass, a porch, some peace and quiet, etc, all of which are absent in these apartments. As these buildings are built and charge what they charge, it attracts other landlords who want to cash it on those high rents, making both renting and buying a home less affordable. Rather than giving a free pass to wealthy investors, let’s regulate the market as John suggests so that town staff, teachers, Umass educators, and others can send their kids to our school and not be priced out of a wonderful town to call home.

    Given that mixed use, high density developments might not be the right answer, I’d be interested to hear how you would suggest making housing more affordable for average folks in Amherst. Would you support zones in town, such as Orchard Valley or Echo Hill where investors are not permitted to make bids on single family homes? Would you support the development of townhomes that can only be sold or rented to area residents?
    How do you feel about taxing investment properties at a higher rate so that middle class folks and seniors can get a discount on their taxes? Let’s talk more, maybe there are some proposals we agree on… Thanks!

  4. As someone dear to me once said, “Your perspective depends on where you are standing”.
    For those who allege that residents are being discriminatory in wanting to limit student rentals, why is not discriminatory against middle to low income working class residents for the Town to allow so many single family homes to be purchased by investors for use as student rentals (or, at least, per bedroom rentals)?

  5. Mr. Joseph Fattorusso there is no residential zone in Amherst that limits housing to single family homes. Amherst’s residential zones are all zoned for greater density than most people realize– 4 housing units per acre in RN- Neighborhood Residential, 9 units/acre in RG-General Residence. Amherst Center and the (informal) village centers all are zoned for even more density, especially for mixed use buildings. The issue isn’t limits on housing density, it’s the negative impact of too many student rental on residential neighborhoods and the overall impact on rents and housing prices created by the shortage of on-campus housing at UMass and student demand.

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