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Editorial: Families priced out of Amherst housing

The sale of the Echo Village Apartments is forcing Amherst to confront again the fact that its housing market prices out working and low-income families.

Today, 19 families who receive help on their rents at Echo Village from the federal government have just weeks to find new homes. New owners at the complex off Belchertown Road plan to increase rents beyond what the federal Section 8 program allows because a requirement that they provide lower-cost housing is expiring.

This is a short-term crisis for these families. For the town, the solution can only be found in the long term.

To its credit, Amherst is responding to the plight of Echo Village tenants. At a packed meeting Tuesday, housing officials counseled tenants on ways to answer written orders from Eagle Crest Property Management that they leave their homes by March 31. We hope that Eagle Crest is open to one proposal in particular — that the move-out date be postponed until the end of the college semester, when rental units become more available. It would also minimize disruption for younger students during the school year.

But even when apartments open up again, most will be listed at private-market prices that these and other low-income families will find hard or impossible to afford.

At Echo Hill, new rents are expected to rise well above the caps set for Section 8 vouchers in Amherst — $897 for one-bedroom units, $1,122 for two bedrooms and $1,400 for three bedrooms. Under the housing program, tenants have to locate rentals that qualify. Now, vouchers require them to pay roughly 30 percent of rents, with the rest subsidized by the federal government.

Echo Hill’s new owners are able to close out participation in the program which was linked to federal loans arranged by its previous owners, Gatehouse Road Realty LLC. Puffton Village raised rents a decade ago when its loan program lapsed. And the 200 units at Rolling Green at Amherst face the same fate.

As a story on Page 1 today notes, Amherst is a tight and expensive market for rental housing for one reason: many college students — including the 40 percent of University of Massachusetts Amherst students who live off campus — are chasing too few apartments.

UMass continues to build student housing, as with the new Commonwealth Honors College project now under way. But past efforts to expand the supply of student housing off-campus have run into opposition. The Gateway project that would have mixed housing and business space in the area between the town center and UMass went nowhere, in large part because of neighborhood opposition.

Town leaders might reason that once they manage to resolve quality-of-life conflicts, town residents might be more willing to support the construction of off-campus student housing. But who’s to say this problem will ever be settled? The spring party season is just around the corner. If history is a guide, reservoirs of resentment will soon be refilled.

Interestingly, just this week Cinda Jones of W.D. Cowls Inc. announced her company’s plans to sell 154 acres of land on Henry Street to a Georgia company to build “The Retreat,” a 170-unit developent of cottage-style homes for students. An official with Landmark Properties, clearly aware of housing conflicts in Amherst, said its project could help ease stress on people in single-family neighborhoods.

This project is sure to be controversial and should get a thorough going over. And yet in the long run, Amherst must help foster the development of off-campus student housing.

If it fails to enable the development of student housing, Amherst is sealing the fate of families like those who are being forced out of Echo Hill. Some of them grew up in town and face the prospect of moving out because there is just no place for them any longer.

Amherst is in many ways an extraordinarily caring community. With the Echo Hill sale, some two dozen tenants face the prospect of housing exile.

The next time arguments against new rental housing cite the threat of unruly students, we hope someone asks the speaker to consider the plight of the town’s working families.

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