Let’s densify!

By Elisa Campbell

I am afraid that Amherst has become a gated community, not literally, but effectively, based on the high price of housing. I don’t think any of us wanted this to happen.  In 2020, housing prices were already far too high for people with jobs but no family wealth to buy, or, often, even to rent here. 

And during the past year, bidding wars have pushed up the cost of housing astronomically, not just in our area but in any place that is regarded as a good place in which to live in this country.

We do not control the economy of the world, the United States, Massachusetts, or our part of Massachusetts. The only thing we Amherst residents can do is to decide what we are willing to change  to help make things better for people who see few options for them here.  What price are you, Amherst resident, willing to pay, or what are you willing to forgo, as an environmentally-aware, climate crisis-concerned citizen to tackle the housing problem?

Amherst needs more housing of various types, suitable for a variety of lifestyles (depending on age, mobility, and job security, for example) and incomes.

Fortunately, several efforts to build affordable housing in Amherst are under way, including:

  • Aspen Heights – 11 units
  • Amherst Studio Apartments – 28 units
  • New Barry Roberts development on Route 9 & University Drive – 45 units
  • Belchertown Road-East Street affordable housing development – perhaps 50-60 units

While Aspen Heights is built and the Roberts property is under construction, the other projects have not yet broken ground.  However, when built, this number of apartments is not enough to meet the need.

Furthermore, most recent building projects do nothing for senior citizens who have lived here for decades and want to stay, but who cannot find and/or afford an option in Amherst that is on one floor and smaller than their current home. The people I know in that situation have had to move elsewhere.

An important way to increase and vary the housing supply is to densify.  The housing debate in Amherst has been too narrowly focused on what downtown does or should look like. How about our existing single-family neighborhoods: can they accommodate more people? For example: how big is your house? How does that size compare to the size of the house or apartment you grew up in? Can it provide housing for more people?

How about your house lot –  if it was large initially to allow for a septic system but your lot now has town sewer, it doesn’t need to be so large. Are you willing to have an accessory unit built there – even for someone who is not a relative? What if your neighbors decide to build an accessory unit – will you support them?

Regarding the debate about apartment buildings downtown, what is the alternative? The real “alternative” is sprawl. If housing can’t go up it is going to go out. Sprawl – houses spread out along roads, making it impossible to provide efficient services like water and sewer, let alone public transportation.

Sprawl is an environmental disaster eating up green space, elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley if not in Amherst, but surely influenced by our local decisions. If we collectively say NO to building “up,” does that contribute to the suburbanization of our locale (especially hill towns, such as Pelham, Shutesbury, Williamsburg, Goshen, etc.)? If so, do we care? Or are we collectively interested only in what we, as individuals, see and experience? Are you willing to see all the open fields covered with houses? Every woodland ? Even the ones you see regularly and love?

I want humans to stop occupying so much space. I want other species to have places to live their lives and continue to exist, hopefully even thrive. I am extremely distressed at what we “Homo sapiens” have done and are doing to the planet we live on – including but not limited to the climate crisis, which is clearly horrible.

If you agree with me then recognize that we have choices to make. Some choices are about downtown: can we accept new buildings of a size and design we aren’t used to, that other people can live in?

Please think – where do your kids live? How large is their place? How about your grandkids – what kind of housing do they need right now and where are they going to live? Do you think kids and grandkids of people you don’t know need and deserve a decent place to live? If so, where? Surely, at least some should have the option to live here.

Let’s make it possible.

A Historic Vote is Coming on a Long-overdue Elementary School

By Anastasia Ordonez

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) isn’t known for giving many second chances. So when they decided in 2019 to consider funding Amherst’s elementary school project after we had declined their help just three years earlier, it was a welcome surprise.

But this decision wasn’t just good luck. We worked hard to get the agency to believe in us and have more to do before our town must vote to fund our share of a new school in November 2022. We really can’t afford to lose this opportunity again.

Most folks in town are familiar with the events that led to our failed elementary school construction project almost five years ago. For years, school district leaders had called attention to the many problems with the Wildwood and Fort River elementary school buildings, some of which were present at construction and have worsened with age. Annual applications to the MSBA, the state agency charged with funding capital improvement projects in our state’s schools, were repeatedly denied until late 2013, when the agency finally accepted Amherst into its project pipeline.

Unfortunately, despite a win of the popular vote in 2016 to accept the debt that would pay for our share of the project, Town Meeting declined to formally sign off on funding. Project supporters tried twice to overturn the Town Meeting decision, including through a town-wide referendum, but lost in the end. We had to notify the MSBA that we were turning down their support.

Amherst’s governance changed dramatically soon after. Many residents were outraged at the lost school project, and they organized to enact a new Town Charter and replace Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council. People rallied around the banner of the lost school project and other lost or shelved capital projects, resulting in dramatic leadership change for our community.

Meanwhile the new superintendent and School Committee reapplied to the MSBA, knowing that state funding for either school renovations or new construction would be critical. In 2019, following an intense public engagement process that resulted in general consensus around a new project, the town received word that we had been accepted into the pipeline. The MSBA didn’t want to take a chance that they would lose money on Amherst again, but they commended us for working toward consensus and were willing to formally explore helping us pay for a new school.

That’s not the end of this story, though.

Local and state public bodies – including the School Building Committee, Town Council, Amherst School Committee and the MSBA – will solicit community input, exchange information and vote on many project details over the next few years. There are some things we have control over, like an educational plan, but there are some things the MSBA controls and we only get a minor say in, like the choice of design team.

The MSBA recently took a big step forward by confirming the School Building Committee’s choice of contractor that will manage this construction project for us. But one of the most important sequence of votes will come next year when the MSBA will decide whether to enter into a Project Scope and Budget agreement with our town. After that we must vote to fund our share, in much the same way we did in 2016.

This town-wide vote is a big deal. As I explained two years ago, the MSBA estimates that projects like this one take five to seven years to complete from when the Eligibility Period first starts. In our case that was May 2020 so, realistically, we can’t expect our children to start in any new school until at least 2025 — a full 18 years after we first filed an application with the MSBA. We’ve lost a lot of time getting to this point, and we can’t afford to lose any more. Not only will construction costs continue to go up, but our children and educators deserve better schools right now.

“Remember the time the ceiling in the library fell down with a crash?” a sixth grader asked while reciting a poem onstage at his recent graduation from Fort River Elementary School. The smile froze on my face at those words. I remember the many instances that our public school buildings have failed our students – the hours of class time lost during heatwaves when the schools’ coolers wouldn’t turn on, the loss of library time when falling ceilings have rained on school books, the loss of concentration when children can’t hear their teachers in acoustically lousy open classrooms.

The MSBA expects our community to show we’re serious and won’t renege on our end of the bargain this time around. But most important, while that graduating sixth grader is too young to remember the first application to the MSBA and will never step foot in a new Amherst school, we must pass this vote for future students so they have a healthy, inspiring place in which to learn every day.

Who Owns Amherst’s Future?

By Sarah Marshall

Amherst residents are passionate about what they want and don’t want, from the look of the downtown, residential, and rural landscapes, to the types of housing that can or should be built (and for whom), to our budget priorities.

I have many times heard comments that begin, “When I moved here 40 years ago,” or “When I first came to Amherst…” Frequently, the commenters lament the various changes that have occurred or are proposed. Some of these complaints target new apartment buildings (existing and proposed) in Amherst Center, or the loss of downtown grocery stores, hardware stores, small local businesses, and beloved restaurants.  Such commenters often explicitly demand that Amherst be preserved as it is or restored to what it was. I sympathize with this view, because much of Amherst’s built and natural environments are lovely.

Accompanying this desire to keep-everything-as-it-is, many complain about the influx of undergraduates and graduate students, the decline of families looking to put down roots here, and the high cost of housing.  The influx of students is sometimes blamed for loss of businesses that the long-timers miss and our decreasing elementary and secondary school populations. In my view, the causes of these trends are multiple, and blaming the University of Massachusetts for our woes is an unhelpful simplification.  Even if the University is the cause of our woes, it will not be leaving Amherst any time soon, and we need to look to other solutions.

As we debate, I wonder:

Whose interests should we be prioritizing as we make decisions that will affect the town for the next 20 years or more?  The interests of property owners who have lived here the longest?  The wealthiest?  The poorest?  The loudest? The people who want to live in Amherst but cannot, whatever their marital, educational, or economic status?

At what point does preservation of a small town’s look and feel limit our ability to provide services?  Does privileging quaintness, or the look and feel of the town, effectively create a financial burden that will limit our ability to maintain excellent schools and public services?

Does a preference for leafy, single-family residential areas, or a disdain for apartment buildings, effectively shut out people who “aren’t like us”? Does wanting things to stay the way they are make Amherst less welcoming to BIPOC people and people of moderate or low incomes?

Are we a small rural town, a college town, or a small city? Will we, or should we, become more like Northampton?

What do today’s residents owe tomorrow’s?  How did the generations before us prepare Amherst for its future? What are we willing to invest in?

Obviously, only the people who do live here can vote, but I wonder if we should think harder about the people who are not here yet, and be willing to lose a bit of what we love in order to welcome them into the community.

In my view, Amherst, like businesses in the early days of the internet, will wither if it does not adapt to new pressures and needs. Attempting to force a model of the past onto our present situation will hurt us in the long run.

What do you think?

Editors’ Note

Check out our new pages under the heading, Town Government 101. We aim to collect sources of information on a variety of local efforts, and begin with general resources (if you are new to Amherst, have a look) and resources to help you get and stay up to speed on the four major capital projects, such as video, documents, and other websites. Please let us know if you come across broken links.

Amherst House Prices Shoot Up

by Nick Grabbe

A flurry of home-buyers caused sale prices to jump in Amherst this spring, with houses often selling for more than their asking prices.

“It was such an unusual time, and we were all walking around scratching our heads,” said Kathy Zeamer, a spokeswoman for Jones Realty. “Even realtors who have been in business for 40 years said they’d never seen anything like this.”

“Frenzy” isn’t too strong a word for the bidding wars that real estate agents saw over houses that were well-maintained and priced reasonably, she said. She offered some eye-popping examples:

  • A two-bedroom house on East Pleasant Street (shown at left) was listed for sale at $299,900. In three days, there were 50 showings and nine offers, and it sold for $345,000 to an out-of-town buyer.
  • A house on Middle Street was listed for $599,900, and someone bought it the first day it was on the market, for $612,500 – in cash.
  • A house on Amity Street was listed at $665,00 and sold for $708,800 in four days.

(For a list of recent sale prices of single-family houses in Amherst, click on “Recent House Sales” at left.)

If you already own your house, this white-hot market means it is now likely worth more than a year ago, and your net worth just went up a notch. My own Amherst house, which I bought for $66,000 in 1984, is now worth about six times as much. This hot market also works well for people who have just sold a brownstone in Brooklyn for $2 million and want to buy a house in Amherst and still have plenty of money left over.

But for middle-income people and first-time home-buyers, it’s been a frustrating time. And this price run-up has increased the already-wide wealth gap in Amherst between people who own homes and those who rent.

During the pandemic, many people living in urban areas and working from home figured they could do that just as easily in Amherst. Some were attracted to the cultural and outdoor activities in the area, and some had family members here, Zeamer said. Many sales this spring were to buyers from urban areas.

“They come with a lot of cash, and look at the prices of properties here, and it looks like quite a bargain,” she said.

It’s hard for a local buyer to compete, Zeamer said. Presented with a cash offer, many sellers don’t want to take the risk that a bidder won’t be able to get financing. It can take four to six weeks to get a mortgage commitment.

Some bidders have taken to writing letters to the sellers pleading their cases, or even agreeing to waive inspections or pay closing costs, she said. But many companies counsel against writing letters to sellers “due to the possibility (or even the perception) of favoritism that may be interpreted as discriminatory,” Zeamer said.

One buyer sold his house in California for $5 million and bought a house in Amherst for $1.4 million, said real estate agent Nancy Hamel. “A first-time buyer putting down 5 percent might as well not even make an offer,” she said. “FHA buyers don’t have a chance. How do you compete with that kind of money?”

Another reason for the frenzy is that there have been fewer houses for sale than usual. Normally, there are about 100 houses for sale in Amherst. By mid-June, there were around 10.

“Many homeowners did not want people coming through their homes during the pandemic,” Zeamer said. “Since vaccines have become available, people are more relaxed about opening their homes.”

Another attraction for buyers is that mortgage interest rates are very low now. Many people worry that inflation will cause them to go up next year, so they figure that now is a good time to buy.

Although your house is worth more now, you are paying taxes on only a portion of its value. But that will change.

Many houses have sold in the last few months for 30 percent more than their assessed value, which is Town Hall’s estimate of how much a house is worth. It is calculated to determine how to distribute the property tax burden, but it takes a while for assessed values to catch up with increasing sale prices .

For example, a house on Aubinwood Road, assessed at $338,900, recently sold for $485,000. A house on Baker Street, assessed for $290,300, sold for $450,000. A house on South East Street, assessed at $365,800, recently sold for $532,000.

Property taxes are due Aug. 2. Your annual property tax is calculated by dividing your assessed value by 1,000 and then multiplying by the tax rate, which was $21.82 in the fiscal year that just ended. The tax rate for the new fiscal year has not been set yet.

The median assessed value for a single-family house is $365,650, with an annual tax obligation of $7,978 in the fiscal year that just ended.

Assessed values will likely increase next year to reflect higher sale prices this year. That will probably cause the tax rate to go down. But tax bills always go up because the amount the town needs to raise in taxation always goes up by slightly more than the 2.5 percent limit set by state law. Changes in assessments don’t directly cause tax increases and happen every five years or whenever the average sale price is more than 10 percent above assessed values.

The frenzy of buyers is now past. “It’s calmed down a little bit, and in the summer things slow down,” said Zeamer.

But the price of a house in Amherst is likely to remain high.

A Crowded Future for Amherst Elementary Students

by Sarah Marshall

With distance learning disallowed for the 2021-2022 school year, all of Amherst’s primary and secondary school students will attend school in person.  However, students will find that all three elementary schools, which were reconfigured last summer to allow improvements to HVAC systems and at least six feet of distance between students and teachers, feel crowded.  How can this be, when enrollments are dropping?

At Wildwood and Fort River schools, the infamous quads, with their incomplete walls, poor ventilation, and spaces with no windows, were transformed into two classrooms each, with floor-to-ceiling walls, amped-up ventilation, windows, and desks widely separated.  This reconfiguration cut the number of classrooms in half. During the spring, some students attended class remotely, meaning that the schools hosted less than 100 percent of the student body. 

Next year, as 100 percent of students return, spaces such as cafeterias and specials rooms will be turned into classrooms, and many support services will operate out of the libraries.  There will be no dedicated art and music classrooms, and instructors will take their carts from room to room, with obvious limitations to their curricula.  Students will eat lunch in their classrooms.  At Fort River, the successful and growing bilingual  program, Caminantes, also affects space allocations, as each grade level offering Caminantes needs three classrooms, two for Caminantes and one for the standard program.  Crocker Farm was not built with quads, but space was also reallocated to improve ventilation and spacing within all teaching areas.  The unique space pressure at Crocker Farm comes from the growing preschool program, which enrolls all of the district’s special-needs 3-to-4-year-olds.

What can be done to get all elementary students back in true classrooms, restore the art and music rooms, and leave cafeterias for diners?  Some options have been mentioned at School Committee meetings and others can be imagined, but the feasibility, timeline, and cost of each option must be determined.  However, it is probably not possible to solve the problem for the 2021-2022 school year.

For the 2022-2023 school year, we can: (1) Do nothing, and live with the current space plans. (2) Buy or rent modular classrooms for some of the elementary schools. (3) Rip out all of the changes made to the buildings last summer and let the schools revert to their prior states.  The changes made to prepare for teaching during the pandemic did not cost Amherst taxpayers a dime, since federal and state relief funds paid for the construction. However, reversal of these changes would be paid for entirely by Amherst.  (4) Make the Middle School a 6-8-grade school, a common grade configuration in Massachusetts and throughout the U.S.  The Middle School currently hosts about 425 students, but as recently as 2000 hosted about 725 students.  The Middle School can easily absorb all of Amherst’s 6th-graders and ease space demands at all three elementary schools.

The possibility of reconfiguring our elementary and middle schools has been contemplated for years.  In 2018, Regional Schools contracted for a study exploring the feasibility and potential costs of creating a grades 6-8 Middle School and a grades 7-12 High School.  The second option was estimated to cost at least $40 million, whereas the cost of the first option was deemed to be essentially zero.  In 2019, and in light of the study, the Regional School District authorized formation of a Middle School Grade-Span Advisory Committee, tasked with exploring the factors, impacts, and potential pros and cons of moving 6th-graders to a Middle School; the committee was not tasked with developing a recommendation, which falls to the elementary school committees of our region (that is, Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury).  The Advisory Committee was about to issue its report in the winter of 2020 when the pandemic struck, upending all plans.

With the pandemic receding, the Grade-Span report was released this past April, and the Regional School Committee began discussing the matter in May.  The only decision yet taken at the Regional level was to allow the elementary school districts to begin their own deliberations, if interested.  The Amherst School Committee has decided to study the pros and cons of moving our 6th-graders to the middle school, and in the fall will begin a community engagement process in which information, options, and feedback will be shared and gathered.  The goal is to arrive at a decision before the December holidays so that teachers and administrators can begin planning how to best design and accommodate the chosen programs beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. The crowding of the elementary schools described above (as well as the need to define the size and scope of the new elementary school building project) now gives urgency to the question but is not the original impetus for considering the move.

Some families are alarmed at the possibility that ARMS might become a 6-8-grade school.  I served on the Grade-Span Committee with outstanding, thoughtful elementary and middle-school teachers and administrators, as well as other parents.  I am confident that, should the 6th-graders move to ARMS, they will do so only after a well planned curriculum, environment, and support systems are developed that are appropriate for these young people’s educational and social/emotional needs.  I do not believe they will be tossed into the current 7-8 program and left to make their own way.  However, as our community begins the discussion about where to best locate 6th grade, it will be important to have an understanding of the alternative – what the elementary school environments will be like during the next several post-covid years.

Hello, Amherst!

The Amherst Current will focus on our town’s pressing issues: local elections, infrastructure projects, our changing demographics, new construction, taxes, and much more. We are working with contributors who have deep experience with Amherst issues, and we hope to post twice per week, generally alternating between “explainers” and opinion pieces.

With the decline of traditional media, many people are confused about the many complex challenges Amherst faces. We hope to increase understanding of these issues and provide perspective on them. And we feel that Amherst could benefit from another discussion forum.

Few people have the time to attend or watch the many meetings of Town Council and our boards and committees (thank you, dedicated volunteers, elected officials, and town staff!). So we will try to help you by focusing on what is most critical as you decide what petitions to sign or not sign and for whom to cast your votes.

We want to be clear: we favor building the four proposed capital projects (Jones Library expansion, Public Works headquarters, South Amherst fire station, and a new Wildwood/Fort River elementary school) in a fiscally prudent manner. We support increasing the density of downtown and village centers, as recommended by the master plan, and support business growth and a broadening of the tax base. We will favor candidates who support these goals.

We want to promote civic engagement, civility, and open discussion of the issues that Amherst confronts. We will encourage residents to vote in the November election.

Let us know what you think, and what you want to read about! Subscribe and be alerted to new posts. Email us at theamherstcurrent@gmail.com. And feel free to comment, as long as you can abide by our comment policy and will give your name and email address (we won’t ever display the latter). And, lastly, please forgive technical glitches as we learn how to do this!

— Sarah Marshall and Nick Grabbe