By Elisa Campbell
Housing options are both limited and expensive in Amherst. A recent forum described our severe shortage, the factors that cause it, how it affects various groups of people, and measures being taken to mitigate the problem.
John Hornik, chair of the Amherst Affordable Housing Trust, reminded us that very little housing was built in Amherst from 1980 to 2010. During the same time period, the population grew, so pressure on the housing supply intensified. More recently, people moving here as a result of Covid-19, and the upsurge in investors buying houses that they then rent, have combined to increase prices dramatically.
In the most recent decade, while the largest group of residents continues to be people between the ages of 18 and 24, that percentage is smaller than it used to be. The proportion of adults aged 25 to 45, and of children 17 years old and younger have both decreased. People 65 and older are currently the smallest group but the one that is growing. We are becoming more and more a community of college-age and retirement-age people, with fewer families with school-age children.
One of the topics of the forum was housing for older adults who want to downsize from the house they lived in with a family and still live in Amherst. Many homeowners are struggling with their current housing costs; pre-pandemic data showed that 20 percent of Amherst homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and 10 percent spend 50 percent.
Mary Beth Ogulewicz, until recently the director of the Senior Center, said that Massachusetts is “graying” rapidly. In Amherst, by 2030, the cohort of the population increasing most rapidly is expected to be people over 80 years old. The Donahue Institute has reported that Massachusetts has the highest percentage in the country of single adults living alone, and that of those, 62 percent have incomes that do not meet their needs. In general, women face more economic insecurity than men. Given economic disparities, the problem is worst for people of color. Economic insecurity leads to having to decide between filling a prescription or paying a utility bill, or having enough to eat.
Moving to something smaller is not easy. There are few one-level houses in Amherst. While an owner of a house in Amherst has at least that financial asset, many can’t compete with the investors and people moving to Amherst from places with higher incomes and house values. Nor do most retirees want to pay a high rent in a development that is mostly filled with young people.
Some people become literally homeless. According to Gerry Weiss, President of the Board of Craig’s Doors, the local homeless shelter, estimates are that Massachusetts had over 2,000 elders in homeless shelters in the winter of 2020. In the past four seasons, Craig’s Doors has given shelter to 49 people age 62 and above; 10 of these people had been there in previous winters, with three of them having been there all four years. Of these people, 11 were 70 or older. This past year, the number of female guests age 62 or older nearly doubled from the average of the previous three years. In addition, there were at least two elders known to be living without shelter during the winter of 2020.
Hornik suggested Amherst should consider developing a new project of rental housing for older adults. Projects of the kind most likely to be suitable are called senior living residences. Existing ones in Massachusetts include the following facilities: outdoor living spaces; restaurant-style dining with healthy food options; enriched daily activities; studios and 1- and 2- bedroom apartments, each with kitchenette, walk-in shower, emergency alert systems, individual thermostat control, housekeeping and linen laundry services, apartment maintenance and utilities, and wiring for cable TV and phone. Senior living residences don’t provide health care, but do have staff who help coordinate services for residents from organizations in the area. Hornik noted that the developable land along West Pomeroy Lane at the former Hickory Ridge Golf Course could be used for such a facility.
Amherst has some subsidized senior housing. Three facilities are managed by the Amherst Housing Authority: Ann Whalen Apartments, Chestnut Court, and the Jean Elder House. Combined, they have 110 one-bedroom apartments and one apartment each of two bedrooms and three bedrooms. All have income limits. The Clark House has 100 apartments, 81 of which are for the elderly; 19 are for families and 10 are accessible. All are Section 8 apartments (subsidized, but one has to get on the list).
Amherst needs more housing for seniors who cannot afford their current home or want to reduce their costs and maintenance responsibilities. The suggestion of building some near the open space of the former golf course sounds good to me.
The forum was sponsored by Amherst Neighbors, the League of Women Voters, and the Town’s Affordable Housing Trust. A video of the forum is available from Amherst Media at https://youtube.com/watch?v=V1tjM-vl7u0