Student housing and behavior: assessing problems and solutions

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.

Many of the houses on South Whitney Street are now occupied by students. Photo credit: Sarah Marshall

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.

This screen shot from the Town’s website shows a street where many of the houses are rentals.

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.

Construction has started on a new apartment building next to 1 East Pleasant. Photo credit: Sarah Marshall

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.

4 thoughts on “Student housing and behavior: assessing problems and solutions”

  1. Build 1- or 2-family infill houses in current residential neighborhoods (a walk around my Taylor Street neighborhood reveals at least 8 empty lots privately owned), which are limited in ownership to low-to-moderate-income households (and not rentals), and partner with the housing trust to offset down payments. Champlain Housing Trust in the Burlington area has just such a program (getahome.org/butternut).

    Like

  2. I’ve posted something similar elsewhere and think it is relevant here…

    Too many towns in Western Mass are facing permanent population stagnation and/or decline…Just look at the Berkshires. Their school population shrinkage is similar to ours…

    If we want to see year-round population growth of working adults (do we?), we need to think regionally, as in high-speed rail from Boston to Springfield to Pittsfield… An Amherst-only solution works only at the margins…

    Also…

    College students housed on-campus = 0 tax revenue to Town
    College students housed off-campus = tax revenue to Town
    Since most college students don’t send their kids to public schools in Amherst, those that live in tax-paying houses are probably/likely a net financial gain.

    Density is good from an environmental standpoint. More multi-unit dwellings, especially those newly built, are much more energy efficient than most of our existing housing stock. Greater density also makes it more likely for retail to succeed…

    To quote others – let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good…

    Encouraging UMass to do more to work with private developers on larger developments close to campus makes really good sense…

    Like

  3. There is a 40% housing shortage state-wide. Not just Amherst but the entire state, and the state has a long history of repressing growth in order to drive up housing values. Pointing fingers at the University is a convenient way to avoid looking in the mirror.

    It is important to remember that Amherst has not had new housing in 50 years, and that towns in a two-town radius have frozen new housing, waiting for Amherst to catch up. The fact is there is no place left to go but up, literally “up”. As long as we repress growth, namely building height, we will live in a sea of student ghettos and nothing you can say will change that. Ever.

    For many years, planning was presented to town meeting that had barely a 50% chance of succeeding in terms of solving our housing needs. Because planners knew that town meeting would not pass anything that meant growth or change. Period. And here we are, reaping what we sowed.

    The university has already built more housing than practically any other state school. But local services depend on property taxes and an intended benefit of the university is to support local property taxes/services which means housing. You know, like the $25 million backlog of street repairs (or the $1400 bill I just got for shocks and struts on my car?). Most college towns thrive in this environment — they have decent streets, fully staffed public safety, schools without a bad roof and mold issues — so why not Amherst?

    Yet Amherst seems determined to drive itself into the ground. By repressing new housing (i.e, building height) and thereby driving up housing cost but not the taxes enough to support services, there is, literally, no place left to go.

    I think we all remember “the bubble”. Our plan to manage growth was derailed by the housing industry which lobbied the state legislature to repress building height. Thus driving up housing values, until we had the “bubble”. I used to talk to Jonathan Tucker about this.

    But during the bubble-burst, housing values in college towns were somewhat protected, like only 2-3% losses (compared to entire swathes of cities that were lost). Which attracted REIT’s, or retirees who bought up houses for income because they were getting hammered elsewhere. Oops.

    So, it’s easy to point fingers at the University but we should not be surprised. Better to have that cash flow where we can benefit (going to local services) than to cede it to the state (and their $80 million a year bill for the recent expansion, that they pay by servicing the students, money that used to be spent in town, if you listen to Nick Seamon). Yes, I said $80 million a year that used to be spent in town to pay for the $3 BILLION expansion. That big sucking sound you hear every time you drive through the University campus. You know, like housing. Time to wake up, folks.

    Like

  4. Some of the ideas about limiting sales / rentals are interesting but I wonder if they are legal in Massachusetts? if our 4-unrelated bylaw is questionable … can we really ban renting a house altogether?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s