Editorial: Advance low-income housing project in Amherst

  • The house at 132 Northampton Road, Amherst, seen from the Amherst College campus. GOOGLE MAPS—

Published: 6/14/2019 10:42:37 AM
Modified: 6/14/2019 10:42:25 AM

When someone says, “I mean no disrespect, but ...” we pretty much know that something disrespectful is coming.

The same idea holds true for nimbyism. The most recent example of “not in my backyard” is coming from a group of Amherst residents who want to slow down the approval process for a much-needed affordable housing project at 132 Northampton Road, near Route 9.

“We are not saying ‘not in our backyard...’” about 50 residents wrote in a letter to the Town Council urging the council’s Finance Committee to temporarily put off a recommendation to borrow $500,000 from the Community Preservation Act account to support the single-room occupancy project.

But that’s exactly what these residents are saying. They don’t want this project in their backyard, but instead of saying that, they use health and safety concerns for both the tenants and residents who live nearby, primarily centered around “a large number of single people, mostly men, with a history of SUDs (substance-use disorders) and mental health problems in one building,” according to a seven-page letter outlining their concerns.

The letter also outlines traffic-related concerns — a common NIMBY argument — and lists other worries related to the welfare and safety of tenants because of the site’s location, and whether Amherst College will continue to allow the public to use the nearby Pratt/Gooding Field complex.

Neighbors call for Valley CDC to cut the project in half, particularly for tenants with a history of substance use and mental health disorders; provide live-in, 24-hour management; tailor the units toward families instead of single people; and consider placing it in a commercial or more urban district.

The upshot of these requests is essentially that the neighbors support public housing, but just not next to them.

While it’s true the single-room occupancy project being proposed by Valley Community Development Corporation will mean new neighbors for these residents, it’s a leap to think this project will bring crime, violence and undesirable behavior to a roughly 1-acre site within a half-mile of town center.

The proposed building would provide apartments for 28 low-income individuals — the majority of whom will be employed and earn moderate incomes. Here’s the breakdown of who will live in the small studio apartments that average 240 square feet in size: 10 studios will have a homeless preference and an income cap of $18,650 a year; eight units will be rented to people with an income cap of $31,050; another eight will go to people with an income cap of $49,700; and two units will be for tenants from the Department of Mental Health with an income cap at $18,650.

Like similar projects in other communities, Valley CDC doesn’t take anyone who walks through the door. Tenants are screened and must meet certain criteria. In a response to neighborhood concerns, Valley CDC argues that neighbors are relying on profiling by “ascribing characteristics to individuals because they belong to a group,” such as low income, homeless, and having a mental health disability.

We agree. One major flaw in the neighbors’ research is they don’t give Valley CDC credit for its track record in the communities it serves — Amherst, Northampton, Easthampton and Hadley. The agency has developed 224 units of affordable housing, including 53 SRO and enhanced SRO units.

The nonprofit says it has operated similar housing for three decades without any incident of violence to neighbors. Two of these properties are in Northampton, next to the Bridge Street Elementary School playground and the Smith College athletic area.

The organization is arguably the biggest producer of affordable housing that helps vulnerable people secure shelter. Not only is the nonprofit the type of developer that Amherst should partner with, this project checks the boxes on many of the town’s identified housing needs. We can’t see the benefit in delaying a funding vote.

Amherst currently has zero affordable studio apartments with support services in town. This critical piece of the housing puzzle would meet a top goal of the town’s community development strategy, which was last updated in 2018 and posted on the town’s website.

The Northampton Road site is an ideal spot, located close to Pioneer Valley Transit Authority bus stop and within walking distance to a populated downtown area where residents can shop and visit many of the types of support services that will come with living in the SRO building.

The town should advance Valley CDC’s CPA request this summer, following a community discussion scheduled for June 24. Many concerns can be addressed and discussed through the permitting process in the coming months, but this project fills a major need in Amherst and shoul d move ahead.

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