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Editorial: Must fill affordable housing at Presidential Apartments in Amherst

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Friday, September 22, 2017

An inexcusable bureaucratic snafu must be unraveled quickly to get tenants into six affordable housing units at Presidential Apartments in North Amherst.

Building Commissioner Robert Morra took the first step this week when he threatened $600 daily fines if the units are not rented to income-eligible tenants by Oct. 18 because owner Amherst-Presidential Village is violating a special permit issued by the town in 2013.

Morra sent a letter Monday to Allen Cohn, who owns Presidential Development Co. in West Hartford, Connecticut, which has two properties in Amherst: 139 units at Presidential Apartments at 950 North Pleasant St. and 200 at Colonial Village on Belchertown Road.

That was the same day a story was published by staff writer Scott Merzbach reporting that people were told they had won a lottery to move into one of the affordable units Sept. 1, but later were denied the housing.

Among them is Heather Steele, who works full time at the Bluebonnet Diner in Northampton. Soon after the Aug. 11 lottery, Steele got good news from the Amherst Housing Authority: “They called me and told me that my name was the first picked.”

Steele prepared to move with her teenage son into a two-bedroom apartment by scraping together $3,100, including rent for the first and last months. However, days later Steele was told the apartment would not be available, and she was forced to temporarily extend her lease at Butternut Farm so she could remain in Amherst where she has lived for 15 years.

“I almost got put out on the street, and I’m still being affected because I can’t find a place to live,” Steele says, adding that others are in the same situation. “It was a scam and we all have nowhere to live.”

Debbie Turgeon, executive director of the Amherst Housing Authority that oversaw the lottery to select tenants, said it was not responsible for the decision to deny them housing at Presidential Apartments. “We put a flier out there and did the lottery, and then learned there were no units,” Turgeon said. “It’s an unfortunate situation and we feel bad about it.”

Cohn on Wednesday acknowledged that the units supposed to be set aside as affordable housing had been rented in 2016 to other tenants, and he was surprised that a lottery was held in August for qualified tenants to occupy them starting Sept. 1.

“We didn’t have any anticipation (the Amherst Housing Authority) would be ready in August or September, so we continued along as we had the year before,” Cohn said.

“Our commitment to the town is the next apartments that become vacant will be made available to the Amherst Housing Authority,” Cohn said. “We will fulfill our commitment to the town of Amherst for affordable apartments.”

However, Cohn said that may not be until December or January, after the academic semester ends. That’s not good enough. Cohn must find space in the next month elsewhere at Presidential Apartments or Colonial Village for the tenants now in the six units that were supposed to be set aside as affordable.

The special permit issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals more than four years ago requires the six “low-rent” units because the expansion of Presidential Apartments triggered the town’s inclusionary bylaw encouraging the development of affordable housing.

Morra said if those affordable apartments are being rented at market rate, that is a clear violation allowing him to impose a $100 per day fine for each unit. “The special permit doesn’t allow for (those) units to be rented to anyone else who doesn’t qualify,” he said.

Those apartments will remain affordable for at least 30 years under an agreement signed by the Select Board in May and approved by the state Department of Housing and Community Development in July.

The waiting lists are long for affordable housing in Amherst, and opportunities for new low-rent units are scarce. The last similar lottery in town was in 2014 when Olympia Oaks opened on East Pleasant Street.

The six affordable units at Presidential Apartments are ticketed for tenants earning no more than 80 percent of the average median income. For a two-person family that is $51,200 a year. The rent is $1,016 per month for a two-bedroom apartment with heat and hot water, about $500 less than the market rate.

It’s up to Morra and other town officials to ensure a quick end to this roadblock so tenants like Steele can move into their low-rent apartments.