Robert Repetto: Thinking holistically about affordable housing

  • Amherst Town Hall

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Most of us concerned about affordable housing in Amherst think first about increasing the number of modestly priced units in town, but thinking more holistically about the problem might suggest additional possibilities. For example, households have budgets. Those with limited incomes must worry not only about affordable housing but also affordable medical care, affordable child care, transportation and debt. Different households have different priorities but lowering any of these other costs would leave more money in household budgets for housing. Increasing the number of well-paying jobs in Amherst would do the same. These possibilities are worth considering.

Also, in every housing market, households trade off higher housing prices in town against higher travel costs further away. According to their circumstances and preferences, some choose to live close in and pay higher housing prices; others choose to live further out and pay the higher time and monetary costs of commuting. It follows, then, that lowering travel costs for commuters shifts the balance and takes pressure off the housing market in town by inducing more households to live further out. Ironically, one partial remedy for the affordable housing problem might be to improve regional bus service.

Also, Amherst, like other university towns, already houses a very large number of low-income households: the students. Were more of these students accommodated on campus, rental costs for other residents would fall dramatically. One hesitates to say that the university is freeriding on the town, but certainly much of the solution to Amherst’s affordable housing problem rests with the university.

Finally, Amherst is about to consider whether to approve an expensive roster of capital projects, all of which would be nice to have but which the town cannot afford without raising property taxes to service the additional debt. Property taxes here are already among the highest in the state and they go right into rental prices. After all, somebody has to pay the taxes. Those concerned with affordable housing might well consider how that problem is connected to the property tax issue. Thinking holistically puts the problem into a broader context and might suggest more options.

Robert Repetto, PhD, is a retired economist and lives in Amherst.