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 10 years. In fact, it’s been steadily declining since 1990.
A Lincoln Institute of Land Policy article from Aug. 10 states that “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, Amherst Regional Middle School enrollment declined by 39% and the high school’s by 36%. 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 construction 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.
The 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 whether 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 at UMass Amherst can afford to live in Amherst.
Jennifer Taub and Pam Rooney are Amherst town councilors.
During a discussion of the residential rental property bylaw at the July 28 meeting of the Amherst Community Resources Committee, some members expressed support for increasing the number of unrelated individuals (i.e., students) permitted to rent a non-owner-occupied dwelling.
This proposal is perplexing, especially in view of neighborhood resident responses to a recent Engage Amherst online survey, which cited overcrowding in student rentals as a major concern they’d like the bylaw revisions to address.
The following rationales were offered for increasing the number of student tenants per dwelling and my response to each:
“It’s more equitable to allow more roommates to share the rent.”
Most landlords charge per bedroom and per tenant. It’s not as though a house is advertised at $4,000 a month no matter how many tenants reside there. One particularly egregious landlord owned three houses on the 300 block of Lincoln Avenue and rented each to eight students, charging more than $7,000 a month per house. The block quickly descended into bedlam. Between the three houses, there were at least 24 tenants. When each had a guest or two, that brought an additional 48-72 people to a small block, with cars coming and going (and backyard and front lawn gatherings), well past the time their non-student neighbors turned in for the night.
“If a house has more than four bedrooms, why should some go unused?”
The surrounding non-student households will be even more adversely impacted by more students with more cars than the current law allows and many more of their guests at all hours of the day and night. The current law, while not perfect, at least makes an attempt at a balanced neighborhood of families, seniors, non-students and students.
The more insidious issue is that once landlords can rent a single property to more tenants, it makes the whole enterprise that much more profitable. As it is, investors are outbidding regular folks when houses go up for sale. Once it becomes even more lucrative for landlords to rent to six to eight (or more) students instead of four, investor-owned properties will only increase to the detriment of all the others who have an interest in maintaining balanced neighborhoods.
“Tenants in houses with more than four roommates may be reluctant to call inspectors regarding health and safety violations, for fear of being cited for exceeding the four-tenant limit.”
Whatever the allowable number of tenants, there will always be some houses with more roommates than permitted. Increase the limit to six and you’ll have eight, and on it goes. To “fix” a violation by getting rid of the regulation that is being violated is like lowering the drinking age to reduce under-age drinking.
Allowing landlords to increase the number of tenants per dwelling will not lower our property taxes, but it could well drive neighboring families and other non-student households out of Amherst forever. Some may have no objection to long-term residents vacating neighborhoods to make way for more student rentals. They may even favor this “solution.” UMass gets the housing it doesn’t provide for its students; investors reap higher profits per rental unit; and life continues undisturbed for those residing in our most protected enclaves and in those areas of town not yet targeted by absentee investors.
Of course, this is all very short-sighted. No matter where in Amherst one resides, it’s not in the town’s long-term interest to continue losing year-round residents. As the 2020 census revealed, Amherst’s non-student population is declining. And a town comprised mostly of student rentals doesn’t pay. Amherst, with a population of roughly 39,000 (approximately 25,000 of them students) has an annual operating budget of roughly $90 million. Our neighbor, Northampton, with a population of just under 28,500, has an annual operating budget of close to $126 million. Losing more year-round residents is not the answer to our budgetary shortfalls.
To remain a healthy, viable and attractive town, we need families that send children to our K-12 schools, year-round residents to support a 12-month economy, patrons for our new library, and a robust population of year-round residents who serve on our boards and commissions and are invested in the long-term wellbeing of Amherst.
During the July 28 CRC meeting, I was told that “neighborhoods change.” Yes, that is undoubtedly true. But is the loss of our long-standing, family-friendly neighborhoods to ones populated primarily by absentee-owned student rentals (in which the occupants move every 9-12 months) really the change that we want — or need?
Recently, I was surprised to learn that a Phase II Zoning Priority List for 2022 included an item referred to as off-campus “Student Housing District” (envisioned for a neighborhood in close proximity to UMass).
From where I sit, creating an off-campus student housing district could well exacerbate many of the challenges we’ve been working to resolve. I would say we already have a student district on some of the streets closest to UMass on its southern border (in Precinct 10 of District 3 – what will be the new Precinct 4B of District 4). These are streets in which in almost every house is a student rental. Over the past 20+ years, as more and more single-family houses flipped to student rentals, families and other long-term residents living on these streets moved away. The result is a minimal adult presence to provide a neighborhood watch.
This past December, the police were called to 20 Allen Street where a party had gotten dangerously out of control. Not only was the house condemned for numerous health and safety violations, but the residents of this “satellite” fraternity had transported two unresponsive female students to the house across the street (so those hosting the party would not be held responsible for the consequences). And this was hardly the first time this type of noise and nuisance activity had occurred. Unless the envisioned “student district” includes the kind of supervision present in on-campus dormitories, I don’t see how we wouldn’t simply be creating a student party zone.
One Planning Board member suggested that a “student district” need not be narrowly focused on students but could “simply allow a great many units to be built that would be available to anyone in the housing market.” Based on the last Council’s interest in lifting footnote m from the Dimensional Regulations Table, I suspect it’s envisioned that these “great many units” would be built in the General Resident (RG) district closest to UMass. I may be going out on a limb, but I would venture to say that no one moved to Amherst for an urban experience or to live in a densely populated environment. Especially between Amity and the University, many residents chose to live in an RG district within walking distance to the center of town, which is already zoned for much greater density than the other residential areas in Amherst. Many of the streets in District 3 have small houses on small lots, with neighbors happily living in close proximity to one another. Re-zoning to create even greater densification (especially in the RG districts) is asking these neighborhoods to sacrifice our already limited greenspace and trees to “reduce pressure” (a term I’ve heard used) on the more protected, suburban districts in town.
It might also be noted that almost all privately funded new housing in Amherst has been built to serve the student housing market not to accommodate families and other year-round residents. Between 2015 and 2022, Amherst permitted over 700 rental units (with multiple bedrooms), mostly for students – and only 61 new single-family homes. With monthly rental fees set by the bedroom, houses and apartments are rented to students at rates that remain out of reach for most families and other non-student households.
On a more macro level, I question the call for “a great many more units to be built.” As per the 2020 Census, between 2010 and 2020, Amherst’s population only grew by 1,444 residents. All of this growth was in District 3; approximately 1,300 of these residents live in the two new Honors College dorms. Since, during this same ten-year period, UMass increased enrollment by ~5,000 students (while the town’s total population only increased by only 1,444), we can conclude that our permanent and family population decreased over the last decade. In fact, in 2017, based on research conducted by the Donnelly Institute, John Hornik estimated that there were “667 fewer families with children under 18 than there were 15 years before.” This loss of families with children is clearly evident in the declining enrollment in our K-12 schools – a trend that does not bode well for Amherst’s long-term viability.
The question becomes: if Amherst continues to lose families and other long-term residents – if we become a town that’s 75-80% students, who are only here for roughly six – seven months out of twelve – is that sustainable? Can Amherst survive with a seven- month economy? In fact, it is precisely those neighborhoods closest to downtown – our oldest and most historic — where we need to maintain a robust year-round population. In District 3 – where many of us have the option to walk into town – we are the people who patronize downtown businesses on a day in and day out basis throughout the year.
The loss of single-family and “starter” homes to student rental conversions is further contributing to our declining family and year-round population.
Rather than building a great many new units for students (and almost all developer-funded residential building in Amherst has been for students because that’s where the greatest return on investment is realized), I would argue that, to maintain a viable, vibrant, and sustainable town, Amherst should prioritize retaining and expanding its long-term population. We should not be so willing to sacrifice our stable, long-standing, family-friendly neighborhoods to the student rental market.
I might also note that several smaller towns that are home to large state universities (including State College, PA and Newark, DE) have adopted Minimum Distance Requirements to great success. These, and other, college towns have worked hard to modulate student housing not to consolidate it within stable, family-friendly, off-campus neighborhoods.
In my next newsletter, I will share strategies that other university towns have implemented to ensure that neighborhoods, which have long been home to year-round residents and families, keep from reaching the “tipping point” at which non-student households move away. After all, it is our long-term residents who serve on our governing boards and commissions, send children to our K-12 schools, and have a long-term stake in Amherst – one measured in decades not semesters.