By Nick Grabbe and George Ryan
The presence of the University of Massachusetts is a net plus for Amherst.
Yes, we receive inadequate state support for the financial cost of being UMass’s host community, and yes, long-term residents and students sometimes come into conflict. We live here because of the cultural opportunities, economic stability, international flavor, and progressive politics that come with a university town.
But we have some housing problems. Neither UMass nor the Town of Amherst has built enough housing to satisfy the demand, and Town Hall’s ability to monitor student houses and identify problems with them has been insufficient.
Some graduate students arriving in mid-August found that lots of other students were seeking to rent the same off-campus room or apartment. And the tight real estate market has pushed the average sale price of a single-family house in Amherst past $500,000 over the past year, making home ownership unaffordable for young families and those with moderate incomes. (See “Recent House Sales” on this blog.)
Some investors have bought houses and rent them to groups of students, because you can get as much as twice the rent from them as opposed to families. Many of these student tenants are experiencing their first taste of freedom and haven’t yet learned how to be good neighbors. Many students maintain different hours and have different habits than long-term residents.
And with warmer weather, mid-April to mid-May in Amherst has been the peak season for complaints about student behavior.
But newspaper stories about student misbehavior have exaggerated the problem, and in recent years complaints to the police have actually declined. Three bars have closed down. Most students are well behaved, and many landlords are careful who they rent to and take good care of their rental properties. Both groups are tarred by the stereotypes of the out-of-control student and the greedy landlord.
The Town Council is trying to address some of the problems with student housing by updating a 2014 bylaw that requires off-campus landlords to register their properties. The current system has flaws: some landlords disregard the bylaw, rentals are inspected only after complaints, and it doesn’t distinguish between different types of housing.
This post seeks to define the problems that some residents see with student housing and to outline solutions that have been proposed.
Some people say that UMass should house more undergraduates on campus. In fact, it houses about 60 percent of them on campus, a higher rate than other state universities. And most students living in owner-occupied or professionally managed off-campus housing do not cause problems for neighbors. The bulk of the complaints involve students living in houses owned by absentee landlords.
As we outline the problems and potential solutions, feel free to describe others in the Comments section. How can we meet the need for student housing without compromising the character of long-term residential neighborhoods?
What’s the problem?
Noise. The Amherst Police Department and UMass officials have worked together for many years to address this annoyance, and deserve a lot of credit. The imposition of $300 fines for problem houses has deterred misbehavior. Bars have closed and pot shops have opened. But that doesn’t help residents who are awakened by a party at a student house, and the options for dealing with loud, late-night pedestrians are limited. Student riots and mass gatherings downtown, once a major problem in Amherst, are less common now.
High rents. Demand for rental housing is far outpacing the supply, allowing landlords to increase rents. Higher rents incentivize the conversion of single-family homes to student rentals. Monthly rentals for one-bedroom apartments at 1 East Pleasant and North Square are $1,950 to $2,000.
Visuals. Some permanent Amherst residents are bothered by seeing multiple cars parked on lawns, beer cans and pizza boxes strewn about, trash overflowing the bins and young people playing beer pong. The outward appearance of student houses doesn’t seem to be as big a problem as it used to be.
Lack of housing diversity. Many Amherst residents think more housing should be built for lower-income and elderly people. But to achieve this, a developer has to see a market for such housing and own land with the appropriate zoning, or the Town has to spend a lot of money to build and manage it. The new transitional housing being built on Northampton Road is an exception and a step forward.
Health codes and fire safety. Without regular inspections, it’s hard for Town government to identify houses with substandard conditions or smoke detectors that have been disconnected.
Diminished property values. With the sale prices of houses exploding, this may be more a perception than a problem. But a family who wants to sell and is surrounded by student houses won’t get nearly as much from another family as they would from an investor who plans to be a landlord.
Traffic and parking. More students means more cars on the road and more competition for parking spaces, at least for nine months a year.
What’s the solution?
Here are some proposals that have been made for dealing with these problems, here and in other college towns.
Higher landlord registration fees. They are a flat $100 a year, no matter whether you supervise one rental or 100. Higher fees may seem an obvious solution, but they could cause more landlords to ignore the bylaw. A Town Council subcommittee’s proposal would increase the annual fee to $250 for non-owner-occupied rental housing (and a $150 inspection fee), and it is scheduled to go before the Finance Committee this Tuesday.
Regular inspections. This also seems an obvious solution, but it would require spending more public money on inspectors. Could that money come from higher registration fees? In Bethlehem, Pa., Lehigh University shares the cost of salaries for code enforcers. Could UMass be persuaded to do the same?
Stiff penalties for non-compliance. Landlords might be more likely to register their properties if they knew that they could face hefty fines if police respond to a noise complaint and find the house to be unregistered. It could be like getting caught driving an unregistered car.
Licenses. We could require landlords to apply for licenses that could be suspended or revoked after a certain amount of code violations or student misbehavior. Some towns in Minnesota have limited the total number of rental licenses in certain neighborhoods in order to encourage home ownership and to restrict investor-owned rentals.
Tighter occupancy limits. Amherst has a limit of four unrelated people living in a house, but this bylaw is widely ignored and rarely enforced. A proposal to lower the limit to three could run afoul of laws banning discrimination based on family status, and could bring a legal challenge. A former town attorney declared our unrelated-housemates bylaw legally questionable.
Minimum distances between houses. Student houses in Reading, Pa. cannot be located within 500 feet of each other, and State College, Pa. has limits of 675 and 720 feet, depending on the zone. The goal would be to avoid “tipping points” in neighborhoods where most houses are student-occupied.
Neighborhood overlay zoning. This would define the physical characteristics of a district surrounding UMass, covering such things as height and density. San Diego has an overlay district that requires family housing to be compatible with surrounding lower-density, single-family development. This might encourage development of larger apartment buildings on major roads, such as the Archipelago buildings on the northern end of downtown.
Town Hall as real estate broker. When a house that could become a student rental comes on the market, the Town of Amherst could outbid speculators and then resell it to new families or moderate-income residents. But this would require a lot of public spending and supervision.
Build more housing. If we are serious about responding to the intense demand pressures, we could increase the supply of housing overall, particularly in that sector of the market that is the main driver – housing aimed at students. We have made substantial progress in the past few years. Continued new construction in the downtown and in village centers, in accordance with the master plan, will be a key element in any serious attempt to address the housing shortage, and rental conversions.
Get the University to do more. UMass already does a lot and it is probably not going to increase its debt load and build more on-campus housing. But it might be open to a public/private partnership along the lines of what is being built at the corner of Massachusetts and Lincoln Avenues. Such a proposal would require the help of our state representatives. It would help the Town by decreasing the demand pressure by providing badly needed student housing located not in or next to a residential neighborhood, and it would help the University house more students closer to campus without increasing its debt load. The challenge for the Town would be to get such a deal structured so that it includes tax revenue for the Town. The current project on Massachusetts and Lincoln does not do that.
Some of the information in the “Solutions” part of this post is based on research done by Karen Black, CEO of May 8 Consulting, a social impact consulting firm in Philadelphia.