Amherst Planning Board member pens letter calling for town-UMass housing committee

The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. An Amherst Planning Board member has drafted a letter to Chancellor Javier Reyes appealing for creation of a committee to examine ways to provide more on-campus housing for students and faculty. Some on the board say such communication is best left to the town manager.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. An Amherst Planning Board member has drafted a letter to Chancellor Javier Reyes appealing for creation of a committee to examine ways to provide more on-campus housing for students and faculty. Some on the board say such communication is best left to the town manager. State House News Service

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-19-2024 11:01 AM

AMHERST — Continued worries about single-family homes being turned into student rentals in Amherst is prompting a Planning Board member to draft a letter to University of Massachusetts Chancellor Javier Reyes appealing for creation of a committee, involving student leaders and town and campus officials, to examine ways to provide more on-campus housing for students and faculty.

But while Karin Winter’s colleagues on the board appeared sympathetic to some of the points in her draft communication when presented at the Planning Board’s May 15 meeting, they suggested it would be better to leave town discussions on high-level matters like housing policy to Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

“As we’ve seen in other college towns, problems arise when too many students are pushed off campus,” reads Winter’s letter, which she said she may turn into a citizens’ petition. “Investors take advantage of the situation, charging exorbitant prices and housing multiple students in what were once single-family homes. Meanwhile, long-term residents and incoming families can’t compete financially. Over time, families get pushed out and town demographics change.”

The letter goes on to suggest establishing a committee that includes UMass officials, student government leaders, town residents, representatives of the Planning Board, and perhaps Reyes, to study the need for housing and take concrete steps to create it.

“If we join forces and strategize together for effective ideas and implementation, like jointly lobbying our government to designate funds specifically for affordable housing for UMass students on the UMass campus, we can succeed,” Winter wrote.

Winter explained that she was motivated by wanting the Planning Board to sit down with UMass officials on a regular basis. “If we all work together, we could find a way to talk directly to the government,” Winter said.

She noted her alarm at the dearth of families living in town and young children playing at playgrounds.

The concern from her colleagues about the letter comes from stepping into the jurisdiction of Bockelman, though UMass officials, including Nancy Buffone, associate vice chancellor of university relations and Tony Maroulis, the university’s executive director of community and strategic initiatives, have previously met with the Planning Board, including in October when Maroulis informed members that UMass has seen a 3,500 net gain in beds over the past 17 years that mirrors enrollment growth over that time.

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Senior Planner Nate Malloy said the strategic partnership agreement between the town and university spells out how conversation on the topic of housing is to be done. Malloy said the letter might be better sent to the town manager, rather than directly to UMass.

Planning Board member Johanna Neumann said if people want to do advocacy outside the Planning Board, that would be fine, but guidance from the town manager is that the university relationship is his role, and the members of Planning Board should respect that.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for us as a body to be taking this action,” Neumann said.

But Planning Board member Janet McGowan said there needs to be a call to address housing issues in town and affordable and student housing and their impact on neighborhoods.

“I don’t understand this idea that we only have to communicate with the university through the town manager,” McGowan said. “I don’t see the legal basis for it or structure, and I don’t see the utility of it because it’s not really working.”

The letter could be used to pressure the appropriate authority, said board member Bruce Coldham, which means the town manager.

Coldham said there also could be advocacy for an overlay district on University Drive that would encourage apartment and mixed-use development, providing more housing.

“I think we have to remember more students on campus, the less their accommodations are contributing the tax base of the town,” Coldham said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com