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.