Editorial: An affordable housing setback

Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014
The 11th-hour disintegration of negotiations to restore affordable housing at the Echo Village Apartments on Gatehouse Road was a stunning disappointment for Amherst officials.

N ot only because it stymies the town’s efforts to provide housing for low-income people, but because it jeopardizes funding for the homeless shelter and Amherst Survival Center’s food pantry. It is a complicated scenario that leaves officials scrambling.

Town Manager John Musante’s plan had been to ask for $600,000 in Community Development Block Grant money from the state to assist an unidentified private buyer, who would also get help from the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, in buying the 24-unit building from local landlord James Cherewatti’s Eagle Crest Property Management. The Echo Village proposal was the key capital request portion of the $800,000 grant application. The collapse of the Echo Village deal on the eve of the Feb. 14 grant application deadline meant the town could not submit the application. Officials did not have a capital project to take its place.

While there was no guarantee Amherst would have gotten the money, Musante had told the Select Board the town stood a good chance with the plan to preserve 24 units of affordable housing. When Cherewatti bought the building last year he raised rents and sent eviction notices to tenants who use Section 8 vouchers to subsidize their rents. It was an unpopular action that spurred a public outcry as various groups rallied around the tenants, most of whom have now moved. There was even an unsuccessful attempt to get Town Meeting to direct the town to buy the complex and keep the units affordable.

Town officials this week chastised Cherewatti for failing to agree to the latest proposal. Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe wrote a letter to him, endorsed by the board, in which she expressed “extreme disappointment” in his actions.

We don’t know what Cherewatti thinks because he has chosen not to discuss his Echo Village business publicly. He has not responded to multiple phone calls and emails since his eviction notices went out last winter. Nor has he appeared at public meetings where his actions and his property have been discussed. That is his prerogative, as is the decision to hold on to his building.

However, pricing people out of their homes is a cruel way to operate and people in town are right to try to reverse that action. Musante says he is determined to continue to work with Cherewatti, as well as the owners of Rolling Green Apartments, a complex of 204 units that also will no longer be offering affordable rents. We applaud that intention and hope it bears fruit.

In the meantime, unless the town finds another way to come up with money for the town’s homeless shelter and the Survival Center, which would likely have been funded through the grant, more people in need of basic help will be going wanting.

In the past, Amherst has put a premium on assisting them. Some have argued that social service funding should be a line item in the town budget, a practice discontinued several years ago under former Town Manager Larry Shaffer during tight fiscal circumstances. It will take creative thinking on the part of Musante and others in town to solve this problem.