Amherst Select Board raps developer over affordable units

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2017

AMHERST — Families left in limbo by the decision of Presidential Apartments management to not make any of six mandated affordable apartments available for rent in its expanded complex by Sept. 1 are getting strong support from Amherst’s elected officials.

Select Board members Monday expressed frustration over the plight of those selected during a summer lottery by the Amherst Housing Authority for an anticipated September move-in, only to learn that no apartments would be available at the 950 North Pleasant St. complex.

Chairman Douglas Slaughter said the situation is “wholly unacceptable” and that developer Allen Cohn of Presidential Development Co., of West Hartford, knew when he began the 54-unit addition that six apartments at Presidential had to be set aside to rent to people earning 80 percent of the average area median income.

“It is beyond the pale, as they say,” Slaughter said.

While Slaughter said he understands that current tenants may need to be relocated, he is inclined to encourage their immediate removal to free up the promised affordable apartments.

In this situation, the town needs to make a strong statement about ensuring that homes for low- and moderate-income families and individuals aren’t taken for granted.

“This is a very important community value, and I think we need to defend that,” Slaughter said.

Other board members appeared to agree with Slaughter that the town is being generous to give the developer a month to remedy the situation.

“They have been getting all this money at market rate which is in complete violation of what their agreement was,” said Alisa Brewer.

James Wald characterized it as an “egregious” violation and that he would triple the daily fines Building Commissioner Rob Morra could impose as a way to put other developers on notice that affordable homes are valued in Amherst.

Slaughter suggested that any fines collected should go into the Affordable Housing Trust, if possible, and be used to support initiatives related to increasing the supply of housing geared toward people on limited incomes.

Over the past two weeks, Morra issued a notice of violation of the 2013 special permit issued by the Zoning Board of Appeals, which requires the six affordable units under the town’s inclusionary zoning bylaw. Morra stated that he would begin fining Cohn $100 per day per unit if they remain closed to those who won the lottery slots by Oct. 18.

This letter was bolstered by one from Roberta Rubin, chief counsel for the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, who also sent a letter to Cohn noting that he is in default of what is known as the Local Initiative Program Regulatory Agreement.

Rubin is giving Cohn 30 days to rectify this, but Cohn could face potential penalties that could include being forced to pay the town the difference between rental income from market rate rentals and the income he would collect from low- and moderate-income rentals.

Town Manager Paul Bockelamn said the matter is about protecting what should be part of the town’s subsidized housing inventory. The state requires communities to have at least 10 percent affordable housing.

“We will take all legal steps and other steps we need to rectify the situation as soon as possible,” Bockelman said.

In an interview last week, Cohn said he pledges to offer the affordable apartments to qualified residents as soon as possible, but can’t do so immediately barring unforeseen departures of current tenants. He added that he may have grounds to appeal any fines based on the timing of the lottery.

Cohn, town officials and the Amherst Housing Authority are expected to meet to go over strategies to fix the problem, Bockelman said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.