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Michael R. Dietrich: How rentals are ruining Amherst neighborhoods

Last fall my family and I made the difficult decision to sell our house and leave our Amherst neighborhood. We had lived on McClure Street near the Southwest dorms and University of Massachusetts campus for seven years, and enjoyed most of it.

When we moved in, four of the six houses abutting ours were owned and occupied by families. Seven years later only two remained family homes. Last year alone, three houses within a block of ours had sold and become rental properties. Lincoln Apartments, a half block from our former bedroom window, also shifted last fall from family housing to student housing. According to the police tally of noise and nuisance complaints, the rental houses on either side of us had the second and third highest number of complaint calls in our area.

We expected some noise when we purchased our house. My spouse and I are both professors, as were many of our original neighbors, and we are deeply committed to our profession and to our students. Our Amherst neighborhood, however, was changing. The landlords on both sides of our house on McClure had turned their large backyards into parking lots for their tenants, who rented units in houses on Lincoln Avenue.

These lots have had up to 18 cars in them at a time. Indeed, drivers on both sides of our yard have crashed their cars into the wooden fence framing our backyard — one a few feet from our daughter’s play structure, another only feet from our kitchen door. On occasion, drivers even chose to relieve themselves in the backyard parking lots in full sight of our young daughter’s window. The lights, noise, fumes and traffic from these parking lots transformed the character of our neighborhood and changed the way we could use our yard or think about our home.

The deterioration of our neighborhood became even clearer to us when we tried to rent our house to families while we were away on sabbatical last year. Despite what we thought of as an enviable location near UMass and downtown, the only families we could get to rent our house were those who were coming from abroad and had not seen our location.

While we were away, we remembered what it is like to live somewhere where we do not find ourselves awakened at 2 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and we realized what a difference it made for us in terms of our sleep, our stress and our general sense of well-being.

When we returned to Amherst last fall, we were not looking to move, but we were approached by a landlord, who is also a neighbor, with an offer to buy our house. As we contemplated this possibility, we learned of a historic house for sale in another area without the parking lots, parties and parades of revelers. So, we did what I expect more of our old neighbors will be doing in the future, unless the town as a whole takes rapid action to redirect this tilt from residences to rentals — we sold our house and left.

Despite our move to another part of town, I’ve continued to work with my former neighbors in their efforts to insist on a rental permitting system that will prevent the overcrowding of rentals and ensure manageable parking plans. Recently the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative in Amherst has been taking steps toward these kinds of regulations. Even though these efforts came too late for us, I firmly believe that both have promise to protect and maintain the family and residential balance of our old neighborhood on the borders of UMass.

In my opinion, the adoption of a meaningful rental permit system is absolutely necessary, if our experience is not to be repeated in neighborhoods throughout Amherst. The consequences of not supporting a firm, simple system of rental regulation and permits, with vigorous health and safety enforcement, are very clear: the blocks surrounding campus, and reaching out into the rest of town, will increasingly become unregulated rental properties and families like mine will eventually feel that their best option is to leave.

Michael R. Dietrich is a resident of Amherst.

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