Amherst needs more senior housing

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

Housing for all – can we thread the needle?

By Sarah Marshall

Skyrocketing prices for buying or renting a home; a decreasing number of owner-occupied dwellings; scant opportunity for people in lower income ranges to live in Amherst; limited land on which to build any kind of housing — what can be done? Should something be done?

In mid-August, Amherst’s Town Council began discussing a proposed Comprehensive Housing Policy.  The draft policy (which you can read here) was developed over two years with the involvement of several Town committees and local housing experts. 

The proposed policy lays out five goals:

  • Promote greater pathways to home-ownership and integrated communities through increased supply of a diversity of housing types;
  • Increase the supply and variety of affordable and market-rate rental housing;
  • Create, update, and maintain safe, secure, and environmentally healthy housing;
  • Address climate sustainability and resiliency of housing stock, location, and construction;
  • Align and leverage municipal funding and other resources to support affordable housing.

The draft policy lays out numerous strategies to make progress towards these goals and describes how to measure progress.  The possible strategies include:

  • Enact zoning changes to permit or encourage lot division, cottages, accessory dwelling units, duplexes and triplexes, or redefining “family” and “unrelated individuals” within the bylaw;
  • Provide incentives for meeting energy efficiency standards in new construction;
  • Waive, reduce, or rebate various fees for construction of affordable housing;
  • Adopt a derelict house bylaw and/or strengthen the rental registration bylaw;
  • Develop funding so that existing housing can be made permanently affordable;
  • Use Town funds to buy private land for affordable housing projects;
  • Encourage UMass to increase on-campus student housing.

Councilors raised technical concerns, such as who would have responsibility for promoting and implementing the policy, whether zoning strategies are effectively endorsed by Council if they are listed as possibilities, and whether sustainability strategies are consistent with the recent report of the Energy and Climate Action Committee.

But much of the Council’s conversation addressed difficult and complex questions such as:

  • How big should Amherst get? Besides changes to the town’s “look,” how might the cost of services grow if the population increases substantially?
  • What are the cost implications to the Town budget of the suggested strategies?
  • The Town has little to no power to require UMass to build housing, so how useful is asking UMass to move more students from market-rate housing onto campus? Should we pressure the state legislature to devote more funds to UMass housing?
  • Most of Amherst’s open space is either owned by colleges and the University, protected conservation land, or too wet to support housing. Can we only add housing by densifying in existing areas?
  • If zoning choices of the past have inadvertently promoted conversion of single-family homes to rental units, what share of blame can be fairly put on UMass?
  • Should we just accept that Amherst is, or will be, affordable only to students and the very well off?

I am on record as favoring changes that increase the density of housing in village centers, consistent with our Master Plan. Many of these can be achieved at little cost to the Town yet would significantly increase our property tax revenue and increase the customer base for our local businesses.

But the goals and strategies regarding affordable housing (broadly defined) present more difficult decisions.  I think it is fair to say that for-profit developers (and property owners) will not deliberately lose money. The more expensive the Town’s requirements for new construction or rental properties, the less likely it is that rents or purchase prices can be held below the desired profit margin, or even cost, and the less likely the housing is to be “affordable.”  Laudable as the goals are of ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, lives in safe, well maintained, energy-efficient construction near public transportation, it seems to me pointless to depend on for-profit developers to build large numbers of such units. We can certainly impose many progressive requirements, so that any housing that is built or renovated meets our high standards, but the high cost may merely drive construction to less-demanding cities and towns, defeating the fundamental aim of a Comprehensive Housing Policy.

Because the great majority of affordable housing units are built and/or operated by non-profits and government agencies, or are poorly maintained private properties, perhaps some goals of the proposed policy would be most directly attained by devoting an increasing proportion of Amherst’s tax dollars to housing built, operated, purchased, subsidized, deed-restricted, or retrofitted by the Town, either on land purchased by the Town or re-purposed Town-owned property.  Two recent examples: the Town has purchased property on Belchertown Road with Community Preservation Act money to offer to a developer for affordable housing, and has declared the old East Street School to be surplus Town property that can also be made available for affordable housing.  But whether voters would support a greatly increased commitment at the ballot box is questionable, in my mind, especially when we want to ramp up spending on other Town priorities, such as climate change mitigation and a community responder program.

I do not know if Amherst’s combination of open space, buildable land, charm, and educational institutions makes it unique, but those factors definitely create enormous challenges to enlarging the spectrum of housing types and price points. Whether we can thread the needle to our satisfaction remains to be seen.

Students face housing squeeze

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.

Let’s densify!

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.

Amherst House Prices Shoot Up

by Nick Grabbe

A flurry of home-buyers caused sale prices to jump in Amherst this spring, with houses often selling for more than their asking prices.

“It was such an unusual time, and we were all walking around scratching our heads,” said Kathy Zeamer, a spokeswoman for Jones Realty. “Even realtors who have been in business for 40 years said they’d never seen anything like this.”

“Frenzy” isn’t too strong a word for the bidding wars that real estate agents saw over houses that were well-maintained and priced reasonably, she said. She offered some eye-popping examples:

  • A two-bedroom house on East Pleasant Street (shown at left) was listed for sale at $299,900. In three days, there were 50 showings and nine offers, and it sold for $345,000 to an out-of-town buyer.
  • A house on Middle Street was listed for $599,900, and someone bought it the first day it was on the market, for $612,500 – in cash.
  • A house on Amity Street was listed at $665,00 and sold for $708,800 in four days.

(For a list of recent sale prices of single-family houses in Amherst, click on “Recent House Sales” at left.)

If you already own your house, this white-hot market means it is now likely worth more than a year ago, and your net worth just went up a notch. My own Amherst house, which I bought for $66,000 in 1984, is now worth about six times as much. This hot market also works well for people who have just sold a brownstone in Brooklyn for $2 million and want to buy a house in Amherst and still have plenty of money left over.

But for middle-income people and first-time home-buyers, it’s been a frustrating time. And this price run-up has increased the already-wide wealth gap in Amherst between people who own homes and those who rent.

During the pandemic, many people living in urban areas and working from home figured they could do that just as easily in Amherst. Some were attracted to the cultural and outdoor activities in the area, and some had family members here, Zeamer said. Many sales this spring were to buyers from urban areas.

“They come with a lot of cash, and look at the prices of properties here, and it looks like quite a bargain,” she said.

It’s hard for a local buyer to compete, Zeamer said. Presented with a cash offer, many sellers don’t want to take the risk that a bidder won’t be able to get financing. It can take four to six weeks to get a mortgage commitment.

Some bidders have taken to writing letters to the sellers pleading their cases, or even agreeing to waive inspections or pay closing costs, she said. But many companies counsel against writing letters to sellers “due to the possibility (or even the perception) of favoritism that may be interpreted as discriminatory,” Zeamer said.

One buyer sold his house in California for $5 million and bought a house in Amherst for $1.4 million, said real estate agent Nancy Hamel. “A first-time buyer putting down 5 percent might as well not even make an offer,” she said. “FHA buyers don’t have a chance. How do you compete with that kind of money?”

Another reason for the frenzy is that there have been fewer houses for sale than usual. Normally, there are about 100 houses for sale in Amherst. By mid-June, there were around 10.

“Many homeowners did not want people coming through their homes during the pandemic,” Zeamer said. “Since vaccines have become available, people are more relaxed about opening their homes.”

Another attraction for buyers is that mortgage interest rates are very low now. Many people worry that inflation will cause them to go up next year, so they figure that now is a good time to buy.

Although your house is worth more now, you are paying taxes on only a portion of its value. But that will change.

Many houses have sold in the last few months for 30 percent more than their assessed value, which is Town Hall’s estimate of how much a house is worth. It is calculated to determine how to distribute the property tax burden, but it takes a while for assessed values to catch up with increasing sale prices .

For example, a house on Aubinwood Road, assessed at $338,900, recently sold for $485,000. A house on Baker Street, assessed for $290,300, sold for $450,000. A house on South East Street, assessed at $365,800, recently sold for $532,000.

Property taxes are due Aug. 2. Your annual property tax is calculated by dividing your assessed value by 1,000 and then multiplying by the tax rate, which was $21.82 in the fiscal year that just ended. The tax rate for the new fiscal year has not been set yet.

The median assessed value for a single-family house is $365,650, with an annual tax obligation of $7,978 in the fiscal year that just ended.

Assessed values will likely increase next year to reflect higher sale prices this year. That will probably cause the tax rate to go down. But tax bills always go up because the amount the town needs to raise in taxation always goes up by slightly more than the 2.5 percent limit set by state law. Changes in assessments don’t directly cause tax increases and happen every five years or whenever the average sale price is more than 10 percent above assessed values.

The frenzy of buyers is now past. “It’s calmed down a little bit, and in the summer things slow down,” said Zeamer.

But the price of a house in Amherst is likely to remain high.