Steve Bloom: An Amherst neighborhood’s lasting lament
AMHERST — As Town Meeting reconvenes and Amherst embarks on its semi-annual battle for its soul, the following thoughts will be expressed repeatedly by the foes of responsible governance, some whispered, the others loudly and indignantly:
“Zoning isn’t the solution for student misbehavior.”
No, zoning isn’t “the” solution, but it is the strongest and most effective tool Amherst has for controlling behavior. Zoning, in fact, determines behavior. There’s a reason factories aren’t allowed next to houses, that commercial districts are kept separate from residential ones. There’s almost a 100 percent correlation between nuisance calls and non-owner occupancy. No one is against student rentals. What we are against are bad landlords.
Take Voldemort (his name has been changed to protect the guilty). Voldemort’s middle-aged, a millionaire, the owner of multiple rental properties in Amherst, married with a family and a high-priced, well-connected lawyer. Voldemort recently purchased a house near UMass, applied for non-owner occupancy so he could rent out the house to up to eight students instead of four and was denied. In order to maximize his profits (and at up to $900 per student per month, that’s some profit!) Voldemort is now maintaining the fiction that he lives with seven undergraduates. The town knows Voldemort’s lying, Voldemort knows the town knows, but, under the current zoning, the town, despite its best efforts, is powerless to do anything about it except evict Voldemort’s student tenants who are innocent victims. Voldemort’s game is to game the system. With the proposed bylaw amendments and, ultimately, a permitting system in place, he would no longer be able to do so.
• Another refrain: “They have it coming” — meaning anyone who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to UMass is a fool for choosing to live there. Actually, Voldemort and his ilk threaten all of Amherst, having spread his tentacles in growing pockets throughout the town. Regarding those residents who do reside by UMass, most are academics and employees of UMass who bought their homes decades ago when the university was a fraction of its current size. Instead of driving and adding to congestion, they commute by foot to the university, something both the school and the town should promote.
Others, like my wife and me, knowingly moved in. These are fantastic, vibrant neighborhoods. Many of the houses are historic, architectural gems, constructed in a way they don’t build anymore, once home to the likes of Robert Frost and Norton Juster, to name a few notables past and present who have graced our town.
We actually enjoy living among students in a close-knit yet diverse community within walking distance of downtown. What we didn’t know or suspect is that town governance would so willingly squander its heritage and birthright for the sake of expediency and the rights of a few feudal landlords to squeeze every last dollar they can from their holdings.
If you ask me, the town should offer incentives for single-family home ownership in these beleaguered neighborhoods. Generally speaking, homeowners maintain their properties, provide stability to their neighborhoods and are self-policing, thereby reducing our town’s severely overstretched resources.
• And another refrain: “UMass is the economic engine for Amherst. Thus, it’s the town responsibility to provide housing for UMass students.”
I find this one downright bizarre, not to mention illogical. The university isn’t some mill that is going to shut down and pack up to relocate out of state or overseas. Sorry, but UMass is in Amherst to stay. The town doesn’t have to toe the line or bend over backwards to keep the university here.
More stringent measures by the town might actually force UMass to deal with its own self-inflicted housing and student behavior problems instead of passing the buck to the Voldemorts, while at the same time proclaiming that cracking down on student misbehavior has no effect. It certainly doesn’t when only a whopping 5 out of 900 students committing offenses were expelled by UMass through its so-called disciplinary process. Maybe if UMass didn’t make it so easy for its students to misbehave by pushing them off campus as early as second semester of freshman year, they would graduate more than the 52 percent they do. To Voldemort, UMass is the gift which keeps on giving.
• A final quote to consider. Article One of the Zoning Bylaws states that they exist for “the purpose of promoting the health, safety, convenience and general welfare of the inhabitants of the town of Amherst.”
It doesn’t mention any obligation to meet the needs and fulfill the desires of the university. Town government’s primary duty is to protect the rights and well-being of all of its full-time citizens, even those in easily sacrificed areas, not to abet the exploitation of students, welcome as they are, who are passing through — and certainly not to service unscrupulous absentee landlords and speculators looking for a quick, easy buck.
Please don’t let the powers that be degrade, despoil and ultimately destroy Amherst’s one-of-a-kind charm and character. Once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
And this place — this very precious, yet very fragile place — becomes just like any place else.
Steve Bloom lives in Amherst.