Residents decry pending demolition of North Village Apartments


Staff Writer

Published: 09-10-2019 11:44 PM

AMHERST — Dora Tseng still remembers the day last year when she brought her newborn baby home to North Village Apartments, the University of Massachusetts family housing complex. She didn’t need to buy much for her son, Fafa, because her neighbors shared everything with her.

Fafa is now 1, and Tseng, a master’s student, knows she can rely on those same neighbors to watch him if she has an important meeting. On Tuesday, as Fafa tottered around outside Tseng’s apartment, other families and children — most of them, like Tseng, immigrants — walked past and greeted each other with familiar smiles.

“It’s not just a neighborhood, it’s a community,” said Tseng’s neighbor, Violeta Hernandez of Colombia. “We are family. We know our neighbors.”

But soon, all of that will change. UMass Amherst announced last week that North Village residents have until June 30, 2020, to move out. Their homes will be demolished as part of the university’s plan, set to begin in 2022, to have a private developer build new housing at North Village as well as Lincoln Apartments.

The university has said that the housing units cannot be renovated because of their age and condition. But current residents forced to leave their homes in nine months say the razing of their neighborhood to build new graduate housing will mean hardship and the loss of a tight-knit community.

“UMass is destroying one of the places that is most diverse,” said Emrah Pektas, originally from Turkey. He added that the university often touts its commitment to diversity and inclusion. “This is kind of ironic … You are destroying that.”

Tuesday evening, North Village residents said they were frustrated and worried about the university’s plans.

Many felt, like Pektas, that the university had made a unilateral decision that disproportionately impacts vulnerable international students on low incomes. Some said that as immigrants, North Village is the only place they have actually felt safe.

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Hernandez said she previously lived in Northampton. And she, like others, said she has faced prejudice in the largely white communities of the Pioneer Valley.

“Many don’t accept immigrants, those who live different than them,” she said. North Village, she added, was a refuge for many. “It’s not aesthetically beautiful … but we feel so peaceful here.”

Tammy Kazazi, 35, of California, has lived in North Village for several years with her husband and children. She said that every morning, her daughter opens the door and asks to play with her best friend who lives next door. And Kazazi can leave her outside to play alone for a moment to check on something inside, knowing she is safe playing in front of the apartment.

Kazazi said she has been elsewhere in the local community, and it just doesn’t feel the same as North Village, where she has met all of her local friends.

“It wasn’t the same vibe,” she said. “It wasn’t welcoming, it wasn’t diverse.”

‘No open dialogue’

Many residents took issue with the fact that the university announced the impending eviction in an email sent without forewarning late last week. UMass said the decision to request proposals from developers was part of a “comprehensive planning process,” but residents said they were never involved in that process.

“There’s no open dialogue,” said Marcus Opalenik, Tseng’s husband. He said there is no other neighborhood that is as diverse and unified as North Village, and that residents don’t know where they will go next. “By not having a dialogue, they’re not really addressing that issue.”

“Why not hold a meeting and inform us of what is going on before making a decision?” Hernandez asked.

In that email to residents on Sept. 5 announcing the decision, David Vaillancourt, an associate vice chancellor, said that the North Village rental office will be meeting with residents to assess their current situations.

“The University is working toward securing a number of apartments to assist current tenants in North Village who will remain students and want to remain a University tenant through June 30, 2022,” Vaillancourt wrote. “The Rental Office will use the information you provide and the apartment priority you have in our system for placement in leased apartments.”

However, details of that plan have not been finalized.

Displacement of families

In an interview, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said both the North Village and Lincoln developments will have impacts on the community at large.

One of these impacts, Bockelman said, will be the displacement of the families at the 170 apartments at North Village. Those families likely will put pressure on existing housing as they aim to find new homes where children can remain at Wildwood Elementary.

Conversations with UMass officials about the developments could begin as soon as the Town Council’s Oct. 7 meeting. Bockelman said Amherst’s government is looking for a “robust engagement process,” adding that the town’s tax base could stand to benefit if the developments are done through a public-private partnership.

“We would like them to be taxable,” Bockelman said.

In the meantime, residents say that on top of already stressful schedules filled with teaching, studying and taking care of their families, they have to search for housing in a tight market — and with low incomes.

“It’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking, it’s overwhelming,” said Aaron Yates, a doctoral student in sociology.

Many doubt they’ll be able to find anything nearly as affordable as North Village, where utilities are included in the rent. Others worry they’ll have to commute farther to campus. And then there are the costs of uprooting: moving expenses, first and last months’ rent and security deposits.

UMass has said it will allow North Village tenants to make their leases month-to-month, and will use its resources to help residents move into leased apartments in the spring. But many current residents said they’re not convinced it will be enough.

And when it comes to the community that has been built at North Village, residents who spoke to the Gazette said that is irreplaceable.

Tseng said that the mayor of Taipei, the capital of her native Taiwan, in 2017 came to visit UMass Amherst, his alma mater. Tseng said that as part of his visit, he made a special trip to visit North Village, where he and his wife had lived decades ago.

Yates said that the current community at North Village — where everybody knows each other, and knows exactly which toy belongs to which neighbor — is the result of the cumulative buildup of decades of memories. Some people move in, others move out, and the residents maintain a kind of continuity from year to year, he said.

“There’s always this overlap and community history,” he said. “There’s no recreating that.”

Staff writer Scott Merzbach contributed to this story.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at]]>