Guest columnist John Varner: Amherst awash and slowly going under

  • The dormitories of the University of Massachusetts Southwest Residential Area tower behind homes on Sunset Court in the neighborhood east of Sunset Avenue. gazette file photo

Published: 9/21/2022 9:03:30 PM

Early in the 20th century, the Boston metro area needed more water. As a result, four small towns in the center of the state were taken by eminent domain, the residents compensated, the Swift River valley was dammed and flooded, and the Quabbin reservoir came into being.

A century later, the state again realized it had another burgeoning need. To meet the rising educational demands of the tech-oriented state, it decided to increase the size of the UMass campus in Amherst. It sought to make this laudable goal more affordable by skipping building dorms for additional students.

This effectively outsourced the problem of housing students to Amherst and its surrounding towns. Conveniently, this coincided with the national rise of wealthy investors, private and corporate, who sought to profit by specializing in student housing. (There are now entire websites devoted to preaching this get rich quick scheme of converting single-family homes to student rentals.)

The result is a flood of a different sort inundating the Amherst area. Businesses are being replaced by multistory apartments. Students are now spilling over into what were once peaceful, stable neighborhoods. This is enriching investors while eroding the culture of the town and decreasing the peace of mind and property values of residents who are finding themselves unexpectedly abutting houses crammed with students.

In the past decade alone, the town has lost more than 200 single-family homes converted to student housing, and the permanent resident population drop by nearly 10%. Ongoing projects like a multimillion-dollar library renovation and a new elementary school, predicated on the needs of the families now fleeing town, seem increasingly tenuous.

The permanent resident population has dipped below the student population (a fairly unique situation nation-wide), putting a strain on town resources. Among corollary pearls of wisdom: Don’t have a heart attack in Amherst on Friday or Saturday nights, because all available ambulances are ferrying drunk or injured students to the hospital 10 miles away.

The town, which used to pride itself on being an intellectually stimulating, progressive, semi-rural community is en route to becoming just a food court/bar/apartment complex for UMass students, with a PC nod toward “affordable” housing, and a few toney enclaves at the margins.

There was no compensation offered, no eminent domain declared, to clear out town residents. Displacement is happening because investors are outbidding single families seeking to enter the housing market, and students partying in decaying rental housing stock impels middle-class families to move from their homes.

Town management seems focused on balancing the budget, and courting investors. There is little apparent interest in, or ability to, enforce the zoning and behavioral rules already on the books, let alone expand protections for increasingly anxious residents. The university foisted its housing problems onto the community, town management is doing almost nothing, and the “free market” has responded with a feeding frenzy of investment in off campus student housing that is unraveling the social fabric of the town.

UMass, by virtue of its size, gets plenty of de facto representation in town and uses the town infrastructure, but the university and its land — half the town’s area — is exempt from local taxation. Through the inattention or indifference of the university and its trustees to the town’s needs and regulations, it has gone from being the life blood of Amherst to draining the life blood from it.

There are solutions. Many communities have dealt with the problems of student housing for decades, and Amherst could benefit by simply cutting and pasting solutions that have proven successful. Elsewhere, communities have recognized student housing as a business, a separate category of real estate to be tracked and regulated differently from nonstudent rentals.

Communities have established systems to allocate points for infractions of behavioral and building codes — systems that include hefty fines and pulling rental permits for unruly tenants and scofflaw landlords. They have established minimum distances between student rentals. And communities are coming up with the personnel and resources to enforce their laws.

UMass also needs to step up: to increase the funding of dormitories and expand public/private partnerships to erect student apartments on university land, to streamline and enforce its disciplinary policies regulating off-campus housing, to recognize that new faculty coming to Amherst are now having trouble finding and affording housing because of the area’s housing crisis, for which it is largely responsible.

People who do not acknowledge there is a problem need to ask themselves: Would you, as an adult, like to live next to the 20-year-old you? Kids go away to college in part to learn how to live as adults. It is often a noisy, messy, inebriated, nocturnal process, best pursued away from families with small children and work schedules.

College students have different schedules and social needs than adults, with or without families. Expecting quiet residential neighborhoods to host student rentals is a big ask. It is made more onerous and painful when coupled to investors seeking to get rich while blithely degrading the lives of those who abut the properties they buy via lax maintenance and student tenants’ “normal” college partying.

There are markers and monuments commemorating the four towns drowned to make the Quabbin. Amherst residents do not want a monument. They do not want to be displaced, with or without recompense from the state. They want UMass, its trustees and Amherst town management to recognize there is a problem, to be responsible and diligent, and to be fair. They want solutions to a problem that threatens to submerge them beneath a sea of students.

John Varner lives in Amherst.

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