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Phil Jackson: Need for rental regulations explained

I’m a member of the Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods Work Group, an 18-member panel appointed by the town manager to develop recommendations for Town Meeting’s consideration this spring. In the next few weeks the group, consisting of town staff, University of Massachusetts representatives, members of the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, landlords and homeowners, will finalize its recommendations for regulating rental properties in Amherst. Relevant boards and committees will then review them.

It’s important to understand the problem we’ve been asked to consider.

In 1972, my paper route went from Hastings to Pickering & Sons. I went to virtually every house on both sides of Main Street, all owner-occupied. Rentals were non-existent then, and I suspect were still the exception on Main Street when I left town in 1986. The transformation I found on my return in 2004 was staggering; this residential corridor was now a student ghetto.

The town’s Geographic Information System, or GIS, lists 40 properties on Main Street today as condominiums, single-, two- or three-family units. While 29 (73 percent) list the owner’s address as Amherst, 11 of these are elsewhere in town, indicating that the property is likely a rental. An additional 11 have out-of-town addresses (some as far away as California and Florida), indicating they are rentals. Companies own 19 of the remaining properties, bringing the total of rentals on Main Street to 33, or 83 percent!

My childhood neighborhood, despite its proximity to UMass, has fared better in preserving owner occupancy during this same period. According to the GIS, only 18 percent of the 47 single-, two- and three-family homes on Cosby, Paige, Beston and McLellan Streets are non-owner-occupied today. However, several residents have publicly shared the negative impacts of one property on Cosby (acquired several years ago by Good Ol Daves, LLC, an Eagle Crest Management entity), surely a harbinger of the neighborhood’s future.

The conversion of owner-occupied homes to student rentals in Amherst has increased dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years due to multiple factors. The most obvious is the growth of UMass. Enrollment has quadrupled in the past 50 years, from 7,300 in 1963 to 28,236 this past fall. The university’s stated plans are to increase revenues by continuing to add students; we can expect several thousand more prospective renters in the coming years.

The lack of new rental units places a constraint on the supply side of the equation. Efforts in recent years to develop new, sizable developments consistent with the master plan have met with enough resistance to prevent the two-thirds majority needed to enact the enabling zoning in Town Meeting. The apartment complexes that sprung up around town in the 1960s and 1970s long ago exceeded their capacity to accommodate the numbers of students wanting to live off campus. While redevelopment of these properties, both to upgrade and expand them, could alleviate the pressure, I suspect this would likely encounter the same opposition as new development.

Another contributing factor is the prohibitive property tax rates in Amherst, the highest in western Massachusetts and among the highest the state. This creates an undesirable situation: Many people are now leaving Amherst. Given the drop in real estate values in the past eight years, it’s now a buyer’s market. Many sellers are considerably less patient and discerning, and homes are now falling into the “sweet spot” that makes them an easy target for investors.

The economics are simple: Excess demand results in no meaningful correlation between the rent charged and the quality of the property. The never-ending stream of prospective renters (who stay for a year or two at most) provides little incentive for landlords to maintain or improve a property. Rents continue to skyrocket while the quality decreases. Many Amherst landlords either turn a blind eye or openly encouraging violation of the town’s bylaw prohibiting occupancy by more than four unrelated persons per unit and there are rarely repercussions.

I hope that Town Meeting members and other citizens will review the group’s work on our website in the coming weeks. While we cannot reverse the situation, I believe our recommendations will provide the town with better tools to manage this situation.

Phil Jackson lives in Amherst.

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