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Jim Oldham: Property rights and wrongs

Is it equitable that 99, or rather 999, should suffer for the Extravagance or Grandeur of one? Especially when it is consider’d, that Men frequently owe their Wealth to the Impoverishment of their Neighbours?

This question, posed in a letter to the editor of the New York Gazette in 1765 (cited in the Liberty Street Economics blog on the Federal Reserve Bank of New York website), is relevant today in Amherst. Recent headlines highlight the power of our local 1 percent to affect the lives of their neighbors. And they raise questions about the rights and responsibilities of property ownership.

The purchase of Echo Village Apartments by Eagle Crest Management, owned by Jamie Cherewatti of Amherst, was front page news two weeks running, as the town learned that Eagle Crest is raising rents 20- to 40 percent and issuing letters informing tenants that they will have to leave.

What struck me, reading in the March 1 Bulletin about the plight of the tenants and the agencies offering support, was how little was said about the source of the problem. Apart from the hope expressed by Debbie Turgeon of the Amherst Housing Authority, and echoed in this paper’s editorial, that the landlords delay evictions until the end of the school year, there was no discussion of the role of the property owners. Rather, as the editorial put it, “This is a short-term crisis for these families. For the town, the solution can only be found in the long term.”

While the rent increase may be a fait accompli, we are not dealing with an “act of God,” a fire, hurricane, tornado… This crisis was manufactured. The affected families, our neighbors, are being forced to move from their homes, perhaps out of Amherst, because of a decision made by someone who lives among us, another neighbor.

This is not the only place in Amherst where Eagle Crest Management is pursuing business interests with significant impacts on the lives of residents. The company is actively involved, as property owner and manager, in the rapid conversion of single-family homes into student rentals, the effect of which was vividly described in Michael Dietrich’s March 1 column.

Eagle Crest is not alone. Many landlords are in the student-rental business. Rents aren’t high simply because of the student demand for housing. Rents are high because property owners, many of them active local citizens, take advantage of that situation to maximize profits.

What’s the solution? The Bulletin editorial calls for development of more student housing. Yet with thousands of students currently living in surrounding towns, increasing Amherst’s housing supply will simply allow them to move closer to the university. Outlying towns’ rental markets may feel relief, but it would require multiple developments the size of that proposed by Landmark Properties for the W.D. Cowls Henry Street land before Amherst would experience changes.

The only connection between the student housing planned by Cinda Jones of Cowls with Landmark and the status of affordable housing in Amherst is that a large addition to the total housing stock will increase the likelihood that the affordable portion will fall below 10 percent, allowing developers to ignore zoning requirements if their projects provide some affordable housing. It seems that some property owners and developers can potentially benefit from a housing inequity that their actions help create.

Proposing more student housing as the solution to problems of affordability is a distraction that inaccurately pits concerns for preservation of family neighborhoods or the natural environment against the legitimate need of families — and students — for affordable homes. While significant infill in parts of town may be appropriate for a variety of reasons, the lack of affordable rentals can only be addressed through more focused action. The town should seek to purchase permanent affordability restrictions on rental properties, beginning with Rolling Green and Echo Village itself. Partnership with a nonprofit organization, such as a Community Land Trust, could leverage private donations to combine with government funds to purchase such restrictions and property owners must be encouraged to look at community impacts as well as their bottom line.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.

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