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Amherst tenants continue push to remain in affordable housing

  • Echo Village Apartments at 30 Gatehouse Rd. in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Echo Village Apartments at 30 Gatehouse Rd. in Amherst.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Tracylee Boutilier, lives with her son Ariq Welch,16 at Echo Village in Amherst  and are at risk of losing their housing, speaks at a meeting with residents and town members concerning the housing issue.

    Tracylee Boutilier, lives with her son Ariq Welch,16 at Echo Village in Amherst and are at risk of losing their housing, speaks at a meeting with residents and town members concerning the housing issue. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Echo Village Apartments at 30 Gatehouse Rd. in Amherst.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Tracylee Boutilier, lives with her son Ariq Welch,16 at Echo Village in Amherst  and are at risk of losing their housing, speaks at a meeting with residents and town members concerning the housing issue.

Amherst Fair Housing Now! is the name of a new entity focused on preserving affordable housing at Echo Village, located at 30 Gatehouse Road. The group aims to raise awareness about how the loss of affordable housing will diminish the economic, racial and ethnic diversity in Amherst.

“The coalition’s efforts are exclusively dedicated to activity to allow residents to remain at Echo Village,” said Meris Bergquist, executive director of the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center, based in Holyoke.

This activity was spurred by the purchase of Echo Village by Eagle Crest, a property management company, in January, for $3 million, and the subsequent notification to most of the 24 tenants that they would have to leave by March 31. The process of evictions and court proceedings has begun.

Of the tenants, 19 receive federal Section 8 vouchers, meaning any increase in rents would make their apartments cost-prohibitive. For those with these vouchers, rent hikes, expected to be between 20 and 40 percent, would make it impossible for them to stay. The guidelines limit them to $1,222 monthly rents for two-bedroom and $1,400 for three-bedroom apartments.

At Echo Village, an estimated 22 adults and 39 children could be displaced.

Though working through legal channels to preserve the housing and prevent evictions, the coalition is also seeking help from town officials. The coalition includes the fair housing center, Echo Village Tenants’ Organization, Family Outreach of Amherst, the Amherst area branch of the NAACP, the Stavros Center for Independent Living, Amherst Community Connections and Housing for All.

“We are planning to take action to call on Amherst government and the Amherst Housing Authority to do everything they can to preserve the affordable housing in Amherst,” Bergquist said.

She points to the growing number of the Section 8 vouchers administered by the Amherst Housing Authority belonging to people who are now living outside Amherst because they can’t find affordable housing stock in town.

“The town has an obligation to affirm the furthering of affordable housing,” Bergquist said.

TracyLee Boutilier, a member of the tenants organization and Town Meeting member, said she is worried about a less diverse and inclusive Amherst.

“Amherst must respond immediately to this housing crisis and threatened displacement of Echo Village families in order to maintain integration and diversity within the town,” Boutilier said.

The formation of the coalition comes in advance of annual Town Meeting, which begins May 6. Town Meeting will consider two items that have a direct impact on the future of tenants at Echo Village.

First is a proposal to spend $15,000 from the Community Preservation Act account that will be used as seed money for the Amherst Renters Emergency Fund. This fund will provide first and last months’ rents and security deposit for tenants who are able to leave Echo Village and find a new home that meets the Section 8 criteria.

This fund, to be administered by Family Outreach, would also rely on private contributions and fundraising and grants totaling $50,000. It is estimated that each of the 19 Section 8 tenants from Echo Village would need around $3,000 to make a move.

The other is a warrant article in which the tenants association is advocating the purchase of the complex back from Eagle Crest.

Bergquist said it is not out of the realm for town leaders to get involved in the fate of affordable housing, pointing to Northampton’s actions in 2001 and 2002 when Meadowbrook Apartments were slated to no longer be affordable.

A year after it was sold for $9 million, and subsequent negotiations, MassHousing made a loan offer to keep the units affordable for 20 years and a portion of them affordable over the subsequent 20 years.

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