By Nick Grabbe
Joshua Driscoll has been searching for an apartment since April so that he can continue his master’s program at UMass in environmental conservation. He hasn’t found one.
“If you don’t respond within the first five minutes, it’s usually gone,” he said. “And even if it isn’t, there’s probably five or six other people looking at the apartment.”
Finding housing in Amherst in August is difficult, but this year is different. Frustrated students are staying in bed-and-breakfasts or hotels, looking for housing in Springfield and Northampton, making cold calls to apartment complexes and knocking on doors. Some have even offered more than the advertised rent or canceled plans to attend classes because they have no place to live.
Town Councilor Steve Schreiber brought up the problem at Monday’s Council meeting. He chairs the Architecture Department at UMass, and said he knows of a student who will not be able to start classes next month because he hasn’t been able to locate a room.
“It’s very alarming,” he told me. “In 16 years, I’ve never seen that.”
In addition to the lack of availability, many students are paying higher rents, an unsurprising development whenever demand exceeds supply.
I became aware of the situation when I received 78 email inquiries about a tiny room we rent out in our house a mile from the campus. So I asked some of the 77 students I didn’t rent it to about their housing search, and I tried to locate the reasons for the squeeze.
I learned that the challenges are most intense for graduate students coming to UMass from abroad, those seeking housing for just the fall semester, and those unfortunate souls who began their search this week.
Semih Boz is in the second year of a doctoral program in management, and spent last year taking classes remotely in his native Turkey. He arrived in Amherst a week ago, but has been looking for housing online every day since June. Landlords are reluctant to rent to anyone they have not met in person, he found.
He reached out to 30 to 40 people who were looking for a roommate, but found that more than 20 people were applying for each room. He suspects the problem is related to the pandemic, with students who were admitted last year but are just now coming to the area.
“I shouldn’t be dealing with all this because I have a very important exam next week that would define my fate in this career path, but I cannot find enough time to study,” he said.
William Harmelink said he applied to over a dozen places and did not hear back from any of them. “I actually had to withdraw from UMass this semester because the dorms are full and there’s nowhere to live off campus,” he said.
Shalom Sara Thomas is a visiting scholar who plans to be here for just the fall semester, and has found that property owners don’t want short-term renters. “I strongly believe that the UMass administration should take the initiative in creating a community that is more welcoming and student-oriented,” she said.
Josue Vaquerano, a Japanese major here for just a semester, has contemplated paying for 10 to 12 months of housing even though he needs only four. “It’s gotten to the point where that’s my only option or spend double that on a hotel or Airbnb,” he said.
“The situation with housing is extremely shocking, stressful and disappointing,” said a doctoral student from Uzbekistan who asked that I not use her name. She’s been doubling up with another international student in a tiny room while looking at apartments as far away as Springfield and Southampton. If she had known about the scarcity of housing, she would have accepted an offer from another university, she said.
Besides the pandemic, one likely cause for the housing squeeze is the UMass decision to demolish family housing at North Village and Lincoln Apartments. UMass is planning to create about 200 beds of graduate student housing on Massachusetts Avenue in 2023, and about 120 family housing units at the North Village site in 2022, according to spokesman Edward Blaguszewski. In addition, the Massachusetts Avenue development will include about 600 beds of undergraduate housing, he said.
There’s a trickle-down effect, said Schreiber, as graduate students with families take rentals that can’t then go to other students. And just as the pandemic has caused many people to reevaluate their jobs, it may have caused more students to seek out airy, less restricted places to live instead of dorms, he said.
It’s tempting to blame UMass for the shortage. But the reality is that it provides housing for 60 percent of undergraduates, Blaguszewski said. That’s a much higher rate than the Universities of Vermont, Connecticut and Maine. There just aren’t enough off-campus rentals.
He confirmed that the local housing market is “very tight this year.” He added, “Our Office of Off-Campus Housing is working daily with students and landlords to help identify housing opportunities, but it has been difficult.”
Blaguszewski cited the overall increase in housing prices, and the rise of remote work among new UMass graduates. “They may be staying in the area, having secured jobs that allow them to work remotely,” he said. “Other recent graduates may be extending their leases while looking for work.”
Another factor may be the many people leaving cities and moving to the area, said Tony Maroulis, the former UMass director of external relations and ex-Chamber of Commerce head.
Amherst is attracting more professionals, and more students want to live closer to campus instead of in Sunderland or Hadley, he said. Amherst needs more housing of all types, Maroulis said.
The dearth of housing validates the controversial Archipelago buildings at the northern end of downtown, he said. But the rents there are sky-high. A one-bedroom apartment at Kendrick Place, totaling 620 square feet, was going for an eye-popping $1,959 a month.
Still, Kendrick Place and the other Archipelago buildings, 1 East Pleasant Street and Olympia Place, are 100 percent “leased up,” according to a spokeswoman.
The housing squeeze, besides leading to longer commutes for students and less spending money, increases the incentive for speculators to buy houses and rent them out.
So the problem affects longtime residents as well as students, Schreiber said. “UMass is our biggest employer, and if that employer suffers, we all suffer,” he said.