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Echo Village rent hike expected to force out families  

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

Echo Village Apartments at 30 Gatehouse Road was recently part of a $3 million sale from Gatehouse Road Realty LLC, managed by Jerald Gates, to Echo Gatehouse Partners LLC. Echo Gatehouse is part of the Eagle Crest Property Management company, based in Amherst and managed by Jamie Cherewatti.

With rents expected to rise between 20 and 40 percent, several tenants who depend on the relatively inexpensive accommodations at Echo Village will have to leave.

“It is very concerning,” said Laura Reichsman, director of Family Outreach of Amherst, a program of the Center for Human Development that has had a satellite office at the apartments for the past six years. “Many of the tenants, but not all, have received a letter from Eagle Crest saying they’re terminating their tenancy.”

Jack Cherewatti, property manager for Eagle Crest, said decisions are still being made about Echo Village, but otherwise wouldn’t elaborate on whether any upgrade to the complex might be coming.

“Company policy doesn’t allow me to comment on the business or future plans,” Cherewatti said.

Cherewatti said Eagle Crest is still determining what rents will be, but he wouldn’t speculate on how this would affect current or future tenants.

“We have a privacy policy with our tenants. We have an obligation to keep their privacy,” Cherewatti said.

Gates and his business partner, the late Richard Johnson, converted the former National Evaluation Systems headquarters into 24 two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments about a decade ago after the company that creates, administers and scores teacher-certification tests moved to Hadley.

Tenants ‘in shock’

Tracylee Boutilier, who has lived at Echo Village since August 2011, said she and other residents are frustrated their tenancies will end so abruptly. Nineteen of the 24 units are occupied by tenants who receive vouchers under the federal Section 8 program to subsidize their rents, leaving the tenants responsible for about 30 percent of the monthly charges, according to the Amherst Housing Authority.

“We’re sitting in a place of shock and surprise and don’t know what to do,” Boutilier said. “It’s hard because we’re not in this situation through any problem of our own.”

Boutilier said her unit is rented for $1,255 per month. Her voucher allows her to find three-bedroom units with rents up to $1,400. She expects the rent for her apartment at Echo Village to rise to between $1,600 and $1,900.

Jeff Everett, who does not have a rent subsidy, said he pays $1,290 per month for a three-bedroom apartment for his wife and four children. He has been told the rent will go up to $1,800.

“I actually feel like it’s worse for me because I’ll have to pay another half month’s rent every month,” Everett said. “There’s no way I’m coming up with that. This place isn’t that nice.”

Boutilier said most tenants have families and children in the town’s schools and aren’t prepared to move because it is both disruptive and costly. And most like the apartment complex, she said. Her apartment, she said, has two full bathrooms, spacious bedrooms for herself and her two teenage boys, and had new carpeting and fresh paint when they moved in.

“The profit outweighs what feels like the right thing to do. We feel we are being priced out and effectively pushed out of Amherst,” Boutilier said.

Residents received letters Feb. 7 stating their tenancies would be terminated March 31 due to “economic and business reasons” and that rent would be increased to market rates rather than being voluntarily held lower.

But, as Boutilier’s case shows, these market rates are likely to be higher than Section 8 vouchers will allow.

Priced out

Amherst Housing Authority Executive Director Denise Leduc said the maximum rents for those in the Section 8 program are set by the federal government through what is known as fair market rents. Amherst’s fair market rents are based on the Springfield metropolitan service area.

Because Amherst rents are typically higher, due to an influx of college students, the Housing Authority petitioned the federal Housing and Urban Development for a payment exception standard so the Section 8 rents can be 120 percent of the fair market rents.

These are $748 for studio apartments, $897 for one-bedroom units, $1,122 for two bedrooms, $1,400 for three bedrooms and $1,596 for four bedrooms.

But Leduc said most two-bedrooms apartments, for example, still rent for more than this. Aspen Chase Apartments rents for $1,340, Alpine Commons for $1,290, Rolling Green for $1,630 and The Boulders for $1,194. Only Presidential Apartments, at $1,110, and Colonial Village, at $900, would meet the Section 8 threshold.

The tenants at Echo Village are expected to meet to discuss their impending evictions today at 11 a.m., Boutilier said.

Reichsman said they will likely explore their options with the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corp., the Massachusetts Justice Project and the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center.

“One of the core philosophies of Family Outreach is to coach people to help themselves to access these services,” Reichsman said.

The basic question the tenants want answered, she said, is whether the new owners can legally pursue this process of removing them.

Community in need

Family Outreach set up an office at Echo Village in 2007 because of concerns from police and fire officials, and the Department of Children and Families, about the needs in the community there. The agency, which describes itself on its website as working with “the most vulnerable members of the community,” those who “struggle with mental health, trauma, medical, substance abuse and life skills issues,” was welcomed by Gates and Johnson, who found it an available office in an adjacent building.

Family Outreach received $5,000 from the Healthy Communities initiative at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton to set up a case worker who started community organizing there.

Still, Police Chief Scott Livingstone said, his officers go to the homes at Echo Village more often than to many of the larger housing complexes.

“The apartment complex receives a lot of police calls for assistance given its size,” he said.

Marta Guevara, director of academic achievement and accountability for the regional schools, said two dozen children who attend Amherst public schools live at the complex and receive assistance from Family Outreach. This includes a homework club four days a week.

Reichsman said tenants at Echo Village like being part of the Amherst community.

“The vast majority are families who are going to have a tough time staying in Amherst,” she said.

For advocates of housing for all income levels, Reichsman said, it seems the town is continuing to lose apartments people can rent.

“The problem is that if a landlord raises the rent beyond what a Section 8 voucher can bear, you’re blocking out a population of people,” Reichsman said.

The Amherst Housing Authority oversees a program that offers rental assistance to people who otherwise could not afford to live in Amherst, with a total of 441 units provided through assistance programs last year, almost all through the Section 8 program,

Reichsman said most tenants will find it difficult to relocate, as they would be obligated to put up the first and last month’s rents, as well as place a security deposit before moving into a unit.

“That’s an enormous amount of money for people,” Reichsman said.

Shrinking pool

Hwei-Ling Greeney, who runs Amherst Community Connections, which assists people trying to get housing, said the change at Echo Village is troubling because the town is already facing the loss of project-based Section 8 housing at Rolling Green at Amherst apartments. More than 200 units there are expected to drop off the affordable housing rolls this year in what Greeney calls a time bomb that the town has known about for many years.

Rolling Green’s owners have the right to move to market-rate rentals following the expiration of a federally financed loan that imposed the requirement.

This also happened at Puffton Village more than a decade ago, when similar affordable housing financing loans used to build the complex expired.

In the 2010 federal census, Amherst had 1,035 of the 9,621 units, or 10.8 percent, counted toward Subsidized Housing Inventory maintained by state.

Should Amherst’s affordable housing stock shrink below 10 percent of the town’s total housing, it will no longer meet guidelines of Chapter 40B, the state’s Comprehensive Permit Law. If that happens, developers then could build projects that don’t meet town zoning regulations, as long as they include affordable housing.

Officials from the town and Rolling Green have been meeting in an attempt to hold onto the affordable units.

“We’ve been working collaboratively with the Amherst Housing Authority to begin to work on what options might be there for preserving those,” said Town Manager John Musante.

He said the town is also awaiting the final draft of a housing production plan to inventory existing housing and provide a road map of housing needs.

The town is also working with HAP Housing Inc. toward getting Olympia Oaks, a 42-unit project on Olympia Drive off East Pleasant Street, built. While the land has been cleared, the project has not yet broken ground.

Laura Quinn, a Housing Authority commissioner, said the board has been working with tenants at Rolling Green, trying to find ways for them to continue living there even as rents go up, including whether money is available to plug a funding gap. Quinn said the board will need to keep the Echo Village residents in mind, as well.

Connie Kruger, chairwoman of the Amherst Housing Authority Commission, said the status of Echo Village could be on its meeting agenda for next Monday.

“It’s an important thing to be watching,” Kruger said.

Leduc of the Housing Authority said the situation at Echo Village is still at an information-gathering point.

“No plans are in place. We’re still trying to figure it out ourselves,” she said.

Greeney said the trend is that Section 8 vouchers can’t be used at enough places in Amherst.

“Many families, in my experience, have moved out of Amherst,” Greeney said.

“The options are less and less for us,” agreed Boutilier. “We’re being segregated from parts of town.”

“I’m looking to move elsewhere,” said Everett, though he said his wife wants to remain in Amherst. “The sad thing is, nothing is left in this area.”

Reichsman said it is unfortunate for Amherst.

“If we want to keep the community open to lots of different people, we’ve got to figure out how to keep housing for Section 8 and low-income,” she said.

Thanks for the clarification. Brava to the Amherst Housing Authority!

k2- I think the story's reference to $1,400 is the 120% exception payment standard that the AHA has petitioned HUD. $1,167 is the FMR, so $1167 x 1.2 = $1400.

Fact check, please! HUD's fair market rent for a 3 bedroom in Amherst is substantially less that the quoted figure. When utilities are paid separately, it's even less. Were you, perhaps, referring to Amherst's Payment Standard, with utilities included, for a four bedroom unit?

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