Group gathers at Amherst landlord’s office to protest his refusal to house low-income people

Saturday, March 01, 2014
AMHERST — Residents disappointed in a property management company’s refusal to work with the town in restoring affordable housing made their voices heard Wednesday morning.

About a dozen people staged a rally in front of Eagle Crest Property Management’s 55 North Pleasant St. office to draw attention to the loss of housing for low-income families at Echo Village Apartments. Those at the gathering also advocated for the town to take the 24 units, which Eagle Crest has refused to sell, by eminent domain.

“This is an initial sign of disgust, but it’s just the beginning,” said Jim Oldham, a Town Meeting member participating in the informational picket.

The event was organized after Town Manager John Musante told the Select Board Monday night that James Cherewatti, who runs Eagle Crest, rejected an offer from a private affordable housing developer to purchase Echo Village. This meant not only that the 24 apartments there would remain market-rate rentals, but also that the town could not pursue $800,000 in Community Development Block Grant money, three-quarters of which would have been used to support the purchase.

Cherewatti did not return a phone call or email requests from the Gazette for comment.

Eagle Crest bought Echo Village, where 19 of the units had housed low-income families, in January 2013 for $3 million and began eviction proceedings as it sent letters to residents notifying them that rents would be increasing.

Participants in Wednesday’s demonstration handed out copies of the Gazette story about Monday’s meeting and wrote across the sheets of paper, “Take it by eminent domain.”

“This is a whole town problem and I think there is broad support for solving the problem,” Oldham said.

Alex Kent of North Prospect Street wore a sign strung around his neck which said, “Stop Evil Crest: Greed must not trump need!” He said many residents depend on affordable housing, and that Eagle Crest is making it more difficult for these people, not only by the changes at Echo Village, but also by purchasing other properties.

“We are casting a bright light on Cherewatti and his behavior,” Kent said.

Cherewatti’s actions in turning Echo Village into an apartment complex for students is grotesque, Kent said, and goes against Amherst’s values.

“We pride ourselves on being an inclusive town. We pride ourselves on social justice,” he said.

Though the sale is off the table, the town’s Community Preservation Act Committee is considering a request for $750,000 from Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek that could be used toward the acquisition or predevelopment costs of Echo Village Apartments and the nearby Rolling Green Apartments. Several low-income families who make their homes at Rolling Green are also being subject to higher rents after affordability restrictions expired.

Associate Planner Nathanial Malloy told members of the Housing and Sheltering Committee before the rally that town officials are still optimistic that Echo Village can be acquired even without the CDBG money.

Mary Wentworth of Lessey Street, who participated in the protest, said as more housing in town is used by University of Massachusetts students, there is a squeeze on what is available to others.

“The town is under the gun from people who want to extend the university into the town,” Wentworth said.

Michael Burkhart of Aubinwood Road said Cherewatti is treating Amherst only as a means of making money. “Community is more than a marketplace,” he said.

Pat Schneider of McClellan Street said she was heartened to see residents turn out for a rally on a cold morning in support of low-income residents.

“We are so liberal here and so concerned about peace and justice in the world, yet we keep ourselves insulated from the people who are low-income,” Schneider said.

Rally participants said they expected to be back out in front of Eagle Crest’s offices again Friday around noon to hand out information sheets to passers-by.