Steve Bloom: End a neighborhood’s siege
AMHERST — It is with ever-increasing incredulity each week that I read Select Board Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe’s comments in the Gazette regarding the spiraling crisis confronting the town of Amherst.
After a weekend during which 67 students were arrested, 107 appeared in court, a police officer was injured and rendered out of commission; after repeated public appeals for help by overwhelmed, over-stretched police and fire departments and, finally, after a week-old baby’s life was potentially put at risk because all five of the town’s ambulances were occupied with student alcohol or drug abuse, here’s the latest sample of what Ms. O’Keefe had to say:
“When you think about all the risk factors and societal trends, it’s clear that things would be much worse if we weren’t doing what we’re doing.”
Say what? How much worse can it get? The National Guard on North Pleasant Street?
This isn’t about risk factors and societal trends. It’s about bad town governance. And here’s why.
For reasons that only it can justify, University of Massachusetts continues to “greatly” increase undergraduate enrollment without significantly increasing on-campus housing. As a result, thousands of 18- and 19-year-old kids, most on their own for the first time, are forced to seek rental housing throughout the town.
Unscrupulous absentee landlords and speculators, as they are wont to do, have swooped in to fill the demand by snatching up vulnerable, under-valued single-family houses wherever they can. But believe it or not, dispiriting as that is, that’s not the problem.
The problem is that the town governance, despite all efforts to the contrary by citizens they theoretically represent, has inexplicably continued to allow, if not actually encourage, these absentee landlords and speculators to reap excessive profits without regulation or meaningful means of enforcement or penalties for illegal conduct.
Absentee landlords and speculators can pretty much do what they want with town governance’s seemingly enthusiastic blessing. And this recent weekend proves the folly of this reckless, short-sighted and misguided policy.
I mean, gee, why not throw a party for five or 600 of your closest friends every weekend when there’s no one around on the premises to stop you?
Meanwhile, as Amherst burns, Planning Director Jonathan Tucker fiddles. Tucker continues to parse technical phrase by technical phrase with concerned and personally affected citizens. Come to a Planning Board session and witness for yourself Tucker’s ceaseless efforts to define an “on-site” manager as someone who doesn’t have to be on-site for up to 10 properties. Marvel with your friends at the current debate about whether an owner of an owner-occupied property “shall” or “may” be required.
Wouldn’t want to inconvenience those absentee landlords.
What’s really going on is that town governance is hoping to keep student disturbances “bottled up” in a defined (by them of course) area, away from their own neighborhoods. But this is one genie that won’t stay in the bottle. Is it really O’Keeffe’s intention to drive law-abiding, tax-paying, year-round residents with families out of Amherst until all that’s left is a vast student slum of marginally maintained, unsupervised rentals? To have the very name Amherst become a local byword for uncontrolled mayhem?
We are one incident away from someone getting seriously hurt. And when it finally happens — and it will happen, I’m sure, like too many of our public officials these days, O’Keeffe will claim that it happened out of the blue, without warning.
In the same article in the Gazette, O’Keeffe claims that “more creative strategies” are needed. We don’t need anymore University-community breakfasts or student information sessions. What we need are simple, commonsense measures, although they will require real actual work by complacent, tax-dollar paid officials.
First, we need a permitting system for rental properties, which, after repeated violations, allows for permits for irresponsible landlords to be either revoked or refused renewal. Right now, the same few properties are the source of the same troubles without the town having any effective recourse.
The Planning Board has already endorsed a permitting system. The planning director has said he would “try” to get something together by Spring Town Meeting. O’Keeffe and her colleagues need to hold him to it.
In the meantime, four citizen warrant petitions are coming up before Fall Town Meeting. Among other things, they require that absentee landlords and management companies reimburse the town for police and fire department expenses incurred by repeated violations, thereby encouraging more supervision of their properties. The other three address the conversion of single family dwellings to multi-family, close a loophole allowing unintended conversions to duplexes and seek to preserve the integrity and historic character of neighborhoods by discouraging the unnecessary demolition of existing dwellings in order to build apartment complexes.
Hey, I was 18 once too. When I watch “Animal House,” I still root for the Deltas. But things are way out of hand.
It’s well past the time for adult supervision — and adult leadership.
Steve Bloom lives in Amherst.