Could tiny homes be on Amherst’s housing menu? Trust hears of N.H village project

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-17-2023 8:48 PM

AMHERST — Would a tiny homes village work as a way to ease the growing pressure on the town’s housing stock?

That’s a question that the Amherst Municipal Affordable Housing Trust pondered last week as members listened to a presentation from an architect and affordable and workforce housing advocate whose company is constructing a 44-tiny home village in Dover, N.H.

Maggie Randolph said homes in the village each encompassing 384 square feet with a 160-square-foot loft and a common shared green space. The village can serve as a training ground for people who begin their adult lives as renters and then soon transition into buying their own properties, she said. Rents will be capped at $1,232 a month in the village.

“We’re growing people to become homeowners with these,” Randolph told the trust at its virtual meeting last Thursday.

Whether a similar project might be possible in Amherst is being explored by the panel, which is charged with identifying housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. The trust, with a mission “to create safe, decent, and affordable housing for our most vulnerable populations,” was created by Town Meeting in 2014 and includes representatives with backgrounds in finance, construction, real estate and law.

At the meeting, where members of the trust approved a part-time housing coordinator to assist the Planning Department to facilitate more housing production, Randolph gave an overview of the stick-built tiny homes in New Hampshire, each being built at a cost of around $120,000. They are going up on a 7.36-acre parcel, with about half the land set aside as open space, near neighborhoods with predominantly single-family homes.

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The $1,232 maximum rent meets the federal Housing and Urban Development fair market rental rate and is based on the $85,000 average median income. Because the project is self-funded and not relying on state or federal grants, and is targeted at workers for her company, Randolph said the homes could also be ideal for teachers, firefighters and others who serve the community, or people making $40,000 a year or so.

Dover, a New Hampshire Seacoast city of more than 30,000 residents, has aimed to increase its spectrum of housing to help meet a statewide goal of addressing a housing shortage. Randolph also explained that Dover has tools such as a transfer of development rights ordinance that allows a developer to purchase more density from the community than zoning would otherwise allow.

Idea is an inspiration

Erica Piedade, who co-chairs Amherst’s trust, said the Dover project is an inspiration and gives food for thought about what might be pursued in Amherst.

Aschleigh Jensen, a member of the trust who lives in an affordable home at North Square Apartments, said there needs to be a paradigm shift in Amherst’s efforts, speeding them up to keep people ages 25 to 49 from leaving town.

“What we’re doing right now is very slow,” Jensen said. “We need to prioritize low-income people, period.”

Jensen added that tiny homes are relatively cheap to build and can house a lot of people — though Amherst will have to make sure they don’t get filled with college students, particularly the 18- to 24-year-olds who are living off campus. Prohibiting college students, who are not a protected class under state and federal law, is allowed, though whether that would be workable for a developer is uncertain.

As the meeting was taking place, students at the University of Massachusetts staged a sleep-in protest near the Campus Pond expressing concern that 900 students who want to have dorm rooms in the fall may be stuck without housing.

Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy said the idea of tiny homes is being explored as the number of developments permitted over the past seven years in town, since the Amherst Housing Market Study was completed in 2015, has exceeded the previous seven years. An estimated 800 units have come online — including the completed Kendrick Place and One East Pleasant downtown, Olympia Place in the old sorority and fraternity park, and Aspen Heights on Route 9 and North Square in North Amherst — or are under construction, like the apartments on Spring Street and the corner of South East and College streets.

Malloy said town zoning could accommodate a tiny homes village, but it’s uncertain whether developers would pursue them when mixed-use buildings that can have studio and one-bedroom apartments, along with commercial space on the street level, have become popular and may be roughly comparable in building cost.

The problem, he said, is that Amherst’s market is under pressure from student housing. Even so, Malloy noted that Amherst zoning allows multiple units on a property, and if developer like Randolph wanted to do tiny homes, that is possible.

Randolph said her company will be able to make money on the Dover project, as it is no more expensive than an apartment building due to its compact nature and being on municipal water and sewer lines.

Malloy said there is a belief that significant demand is being placed on existing homes, but the town needs full data from the 2020 census before updating its comprehensive housing policy.

Part-time coordinator

Meanwhile, the new part-time housing coordinator, supported through $100,000 from the Community Preservation Act account over the next three years, will have a focus on making sure people have affordable places to live. Those homes are defined as accommodating people earning 80% of area median income or below.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the part-time position will focus on affordable housing, even if the person doesn’t have that title.

That employee, once beginning work for the town, will do regular check-ins with the trust to make sure its objectives are being met.

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