Roy H. Lopata: Why Amherst must act to ease student-resident conflict
AMHERST — Like the New England fall colors, a new set of freshmen comes each autumn to college towns across America. As they arrive on-campus with the excitement and anticipation of living without their parents for the first time, upperclassmen and women will in turn be moving off-campus into established neighborhoods with traditional single-family homes, many inhabited by faculty and college staff.
But there is a flip side to this yearly student migration off-campus. Every university community reports the same story — older near-campus neighborhoods under siege with loud parties, late night public drunkenness, broken fences, litter-strewn lawns, blocked driveways and deteriorating homes. As a consequence, the townies — which also include young couples, families, retirees, singles and, yes, even local students — reluctantly call local authorities to plead for relief from sleepless nights and damaged properties.
Feelings become bruised on all sides.
I am all too familiar with these “rites” of spring and fall from my 37 years as planning and development director in Newark, Del. — home of the University of Delaware — as well as from correspondence with municipal members of the International Town and Gown Association, from Newark’s participation in the National League of City’s University Communities Caucus and from serving on Newark’s Town and Gown Committee.
My familiarity with college town life takes into account years of discussions and meetings — public and private — with local investors in the student housing “industry.” Make no mistake about it, building off-campus dormitory-style housing or converting single-family homes to student rentals, is an industry.
During the past few months, I have worked with the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods (CAN) to craft a simple, less stringent rental permitting system that I believe will help stabilize family neighborhoods without negatively impacting law-abiding commercial landlords. The town government of Amherst, through its Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group, has crafted a slightly more involved permitting system. Both receive my strong endorsement as effective yet relatively non-invasive mechanisms to regulate commercial rentals.
As the host of HGTV’s, “Income Property,” recently commented, “student housing is a license to print money.”
As a result, we decided long ago in Newark that while landlords could not always directly control the behavior of their tenants, our community could, within the law, regulate the commercial rental industry to promote responsible landlordship and prevent substandard, often dangerous, student housing conditions.
The most significant change in Newark over recent decades — as in other college towns — has been the proliferation of off-campus rentals in traditional single-family owner-occupant neighborhoods. My community’s response has been essentially two-fold: to encourage the construction of apartments designed primarily as off-campus student housing in locations that would not impact our traditional single-family neighborhoods while at the same time developing regulations that would limit the conversion of owner-occupant type housing to student rentals.
In the latter case, we adopted new tenant occupancy restrictions, specified a minimum distance between units labeled “student homes” and developed a rental permit and unit inspection system. We also required a minimum number of off-street parking spaces for rental conversions and upgraded our noise and disorderly premises regulations. These measures worked to stabilize our community, which, in turn, has resulted in rising property values and reasonable rents.
None of these measures have proved to be draconian, but they were effective. Newark’s approach to the off-campus housing dilemma, similar in many ways those adopted by other college towns across the nation, makes perfect sense in Amherst.
Like Newark once was, Amherst is at a crossroads. Amherst can either preserve its historic neighborhoods or allow them to decline, perhaps irreversibly, into student ghettos. Adopting a rental permit system is an essential component of a planning strategy that can help Amherst thrive as a place where students and townies live successfully — and peacefully — side by side.
Roy H. Lopata is a municipal planning and management consultant and former planning and development director in Newark, Del.