Zoning changes to mandate more affordable housing in Amherst

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/5/2021 8:01:35 PM

AMHERST — As Amherst continues to miss its goal of developing around 50 affordable housing units annually, town planners are crafting zoning revisions that would mandate developers include homes in their projects for low- and moderate-income households.

In what members of the Planning Department describe as a significant amendment, all development of townhouses, apartments, mixed-use buildings and planned unit residential developments, or PURDs, with more than nine units, will be required to feature both market-rate and affordable housing.

“This is a really big change,” Senior Planner Nathaniel Malloy told the Town Council during a presentation this week.

Under the inclusionary bylaw, also known as Article 15, developers pursuing in-fill projects in downtown, such as the mixed-use One East Pleasant, Boltwood Place and Kendrick Place buildings, had not been required to have affordable housing since they were not seeking special permits for use. In 2018, that was modified by Town Meeting so that certain special permits issued for circumventing dimensional regulations would also require the provision of affordable housing.

The latest proposed zoning change would mean that in any development with 10 units, one unit would have to be affordable, and developments with between 15 and 20 units would have to provide two affordable units. If a project has 21 or more units, then 12% would need to be affordable.

“Many of these included now would typically not trigger inclusionary zoning,” Malloy said.

Conventional residential subdivisions and cluster subdivisions would be exempt, as well as those in the fraternity residence zoning areas and buildings for government or educational uses, such as dormitories.

Falling short

Planning Director Christine Brestrup said Article 15 was adopted by Town Meeting in 2005 and yielded no affordable housing until the owners of Presidential Apartments in 2013 sought to add 54 new apartments. Six of those had to be affordable.

The 2018 zoning change has produced 20 more units, including four at 70 University Drive and five that will be part of One University Drive, and 11 more that will be at Aspen Heights at 408 Northampton Road, Brestrup said.

Amherst has also pursued other methods for increasing affordable housing, including supporting the North Square Apartments in North Amherst and the Valley Community Development single-room occupancy project on Northampton Road. The Affordable Housing Trust also has encouraged setting aside Community Preservation Act money for future projects.

But even with these actions, Brestrup said the town is not getting nearly what it has hoped for. The trust has set a goal of 50 affordable units per year over five years, and a housing production plan written eight years ago set a goal of 48 affordable units per year.

“In order to come close to reaching these goals, or even begin to approach these goals, the Planning Department believes that private developers should have a role in providing affordable units,” Brestrup said. “They benefit from the favorable conditions that allow them to develop property in Amherst, and we think they should be part of the picture.”

Brestrup said conditions in 2021 are appropriate for the latest zoning revisions.

“The time has come and Amherst is still a really attractive place to develop housing,” Brestrup said.

Strong market

Town Manager Paul Bockelman wrote in a memo that “the Planning Department believes that the private developers can contribute more substantively.”

Such dramatic adjustments to zoning in the past have not gotten traction in part because of fears that developers would avoid moving forward with projects. Two proposed downtown developments, 11 East Pleasant and a possible mixed-use building near the Boltwood parking garage, could be affected.

In a phone interview this week, Bockelman said the worry about blocking development is dissipating.

“The strength of the real estate market in Amherst almost compels us to take this action,” he said.

Malloy said other changes in the bylaw include that any new homes in the projects that receive certificates of occupancy within a five-year period would be included. This is meant to capture projects that try to incrementally phase construction to avoid providing affordable units.

Another new provision states that if six or more affordable units are required, then 20% have to be set aside at 60% of median income or below as calculated by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development.

Brestrup said the Community Resources Committee and Planning Board, which have developed zoning priorities, will hold a hearing on the change May 19 at 7 p.m., an hour before a hearing commenced on a proposed moratorium on similar developments.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said the planners have been responsive to concerns from the community for promoting affordable housing.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said she appreciates the work. “I’m strongly in favor of this,” Schoen said.

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

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