Healey praised, pressed on housing: $4B proposal hailed at Amherst roundtable as UMass asked to do more 

  • Massachusetts Gov. Maura T. Healey meets with East Gables resident Marguerite Vallespir during a visit to the 132 Northampton Road site Wednesday afternoon. —Submitted Photo

  • Massachusetts Gov. Maura T. Healey is provided a tour of an East Gables apartment by Laura Baker, Valley Community Development’s real estate development director5, at resident Marguerite Vallespir during a visit to the 132 Northampton Road site Wednesday afternoon. —Submitted Photo

  • Massachusetts Gov. Maura T. Healey meets with Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Town Council President Lynn Griesemer and Town Council Vice President Ana Devlin Gauthier during a visit to East Gables, 132 Northampton Road, Wednesday afternoon. —Submitted Photo

  • Massachusetts Gov. Maura T. Healey and Ed Augustus, secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, discuss housing affordability with town and regional officials during a roundtable at East Gables at 132 Northampton Road Wednesday afternoon. —Submitted Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 11/2/2023 5:59:17 PM
Modified: 11/2/2023 5:58:45 PM

AMHERST — Even as policies, programs and spending included in Gov. Maura Healey’s $4 billion Affordable Homes Act are being strongly supported by Amherst officials as a means of ramping up housing production, the governor is being advised that pressures on the town’s housing stock could be eased if the University of Massachusetts housed more students on campus.

During a roundtable discussion at East Gables, a 28-apartment passive solar building developed by Valley Community Development that is Amherst’s newest affordable housing, Healey and Ed Augustus, the state’s secretary of Housing and Livable Communities, were largely complimented on the strategies in the bond bill.

But John Hornik, a longtime housing affordability advocate and former member of the town’s Municipal Affordable Housing Trust, said rents in town, and the dire situation for housing, would be helped if UMass had more dormitories.

“The governor and secretary must make this an attractive possibility for the university,” Hornik said.

Reducing that pressure on housing is also essential for Carol Lewis, who co-chairs the trust and advocated for both pushing UMass and providing state funding for smaller affordable housing projects.

“Students want the houses. People who live here want the houses,” Lewis said.

East Gables is an illustration of the demand, with 501 applications received for the lottery, or “a striking number,” said Laura Baker, Valley CDC’s real estate development director.

“That’s something we’re hearing no matter where we go,” Healey said of the demand.

For Healey, the tour of the studio apartments and then roundtable was an opportunity to hear directly from municipal leaders. “I think we understand how desperate the need is for housing,” Healey said.

Earlier in the day, Healey and Augustus toured Courthouse Lofts, a 118-unit in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Worcester. That has a 600-person waitlist.

Healey complimented Amherst and the region as being an incubator of innovation for how to approach housing for those of all income levels.

“What we put out there is big, to meet the moment,” Healey said. “We need to meet this moment by increasing housing production and lowering costs so people can continue to live, work and build a future in Massachusetts.”

The bill aims to spur the creation, preservation and modernization of nearly 70,000 housing units, while giving cities and towns tools they need to enact local solutions to their housing challenges.

Augustus said one of the principles is to leverage public money to access private developments and ensure those struggling in paying rents or making down payments for housing aren’t shut out or put on the streets. “People who are close are just being pushed off the edge,” Augustus said.

His marching order, he said, is to get more housing and do it faster. “We think that this bill reflects that charge,” Augustus said.

The roundtable came moments after a judge ruled in favor of Healey putting a cap of 7,500 families in the state’s emergency shelter system, despite Massachusetts’ 1980s-era right to shelter law.

Amherst officials said they largely like what is contained in the Affordable Homes Act.

Council President Lynn Griesemer called it an “amazing and courageous bill.”

Griesemer said Amherst has done its part for housing development, revising the inclusionary bylaw that requires developers to provide affordable housing in certain projects, adjusting the accessory dwelling unit bylaw and adopting a specialized code for sustainability so new housing meets the town’s climate goals.

“Amherst is a ‘yes’ community for affordable housing,” Griesemer said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Amherst also put $1 million of local money into East Gables and officials stood by the project even when there was resistance to it.

Council Vice President Ana Devlin Gauthier has cosponsored a transfer fee that would be collected when high-priced homes are sold and companies buy properties to turn them into student rentals. She said the transfer fee in the bond bill should allow for a lower threshold for a community like Amherst, because if it only applies to sales of homes valued at $1 million or more, that will generate little money for affordable housing locally.

Still, that a transfer fee is being considered is a win. “We’re thrilled to see it,” Devlin Gauthier said.

Griesemer said there should also be either incentives or mandates for communities not coming close to the state’s requirement that 10% of housing be in the Subsidized Housing Inventory, similar to the requirement that MBTA communities have at least one zoning district where multifamily housing is allowed by right.

“The bill is bold and it is visionary and, the thing for us, is it’s comprehensive,” said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

Still, he said there are hopes to speed up developments. “One of the big barriers for us is how long projects take,” Bockelman said.

Trust Co-Chairwoman Erica Piedade said the bond bill is phenomenal and the trust wants to be a partner. “We are the ones who connect to the community for these projects,” Piedade said. “We can be a big catalyst for moving things forward.”

The bill is also designed to allow organizations like Valley CDC to do more. Valley Executive Director Alexis Breiteneicher said a lot is already done by the 10-person organization. “We definitely punch above our weight,” Breiteneicher said.

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, praised Healey’s approach in the bond bill. “Thank you for going big. Thank you for your courage,” Comerford said.

State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, noted that her community is using every tool it has to produce more housing, and the bond bill will help. “I’m so looking forward to voting on it,” Domb said.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said ways to create more housing will mean more people can live and work in the region. “Affordable housing is also workforce housing,” Pazmany said.

Of the 28 tenants who will live at East Gables, 20 were previously unhoused, arriving from various circumstances, Baker said, with eight coming out of homeless shelters, one from a tent and one who had been living in a car. East Gables has some services on site, as well as a way to connect individuals to local service providers.

One of the people who has moved in after couch surfing for about five years, the last three in the region, now lives within walking distance of her job as a kitchen specialist at Big Y Supermarket.

Marguerite Vallespir said she hopes Healey got insights into the needs for those struggling with housing, including understanding that a college town’s seasons are different from other parts of Massachusetts. Vallespir said she experienced this firsthand, losing her home when her student roommates left for the summer.

“I really appreciate that she came up here,” Vallespir said of Healey’s visit, and after getting to briefly speak with the governor. “I hope she heard a lot of about how housing is needed and how it can be created.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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