Guest columnist Alex Kent: Gold rush in Amherst!


Published: 03-02-2023 9:13 PM

The phone rang and a Walpole number came up. I shouldn’t answer numbers I don’t recognize — let it go to voicemail. But out of idle curiosity, I picked up the call and it was another wholly unsolicited inquiry from a company wanting to buy my house in downtown Amherst. Hardly the first anonymous would-be buyer. I’ve also had contact from local rental property owners in town. My house is a hot property.

Truth be told, I’m not really interested in selling. I’ve lived downtown for 22 years, longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. I like living in Amherst, I enjoy the proximity to the Amherst Cinema, to the coffee shops where I often do my work, to the Jones Library, and to neighbors I know and who know me. I sure wish there was a grocery store in town, but that’s another story.

I told the would-be buyer to take me off of his company’s list and hung up. I fully expect more such calls.

Why is a company interested in buying my house? That’s easy: My house is near UMass, it has five full bedrooms (and a smaller spare room, making six), and 2½ bathrooms.

It is a perfect student rental. I have no doubt that a real estate investor would put six students in this house. How do I know? Because there are six students in the similarly sized house next door. And the duplex on the other side of my house sold late last year for $825,000 (substantially over asking price), and the new owner has made known her intention to put six renters on one side of the house and seven on the other.

Rents for those rooms will be approximately $900 per month for a total rental value of about $11,700 per month, or $140,400 per year. Even with maintenance and other expenses, the proud new owner could amortize the cost of purchasing the property in less than seven years, possibly netting around $120,000 per year on the property. That house is pure gold.

Amherst’s Tenant Zoning Bylaw is clear: “Under Amherst’s Zoning, a single dwelling unit can be occupied by no more than four (4) unrelated persons. Violations can involve $100 fines for every day a violation continues” (from Amherst’s “Tenant Information Sheet”). This rule is routinely flouted by absentee property owners, their property managers, and tenants.

Why? Because it is enormously profitable to disobey the bylaw, because student renters can save money by cramming in another roommate or two, and because enforcement is inadequate.

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In other words, if that next-door duplex were actually limited to no more than eight tenants, the property owner’s take would be cut down by some $54,000 per year, making the property a lot less enticing as a cash cow.

The outcome of lax enforcement of the Tenant Zoning Bylaw will be ongoing deterioration of neighborhoods that were once affordable to people in search of single-family homes.

Investors want to buy my house because it can yield immense profits. The potential profitability of my house drives up its value on the open market, making it affordable only to the most affluent buyers. But which affluent buyer would want to buy a house that is surrounded by student rental properties? The noise, the litter, the many cars, the disrespect and lack of neighborliness make living on this end of my street an increasingly unattractive proposition.

While it will be difficult for Amherst to reverse the spread of high-priced student rentals, at least the town can tighten enforcement of the bylaws that are already on the books. And if the problem is insufficient personnel, the Town Council should find the money to add enforcement officers.

To help deal with the situation, another neighbor and I are proposing that Town Hall set up a renter registration database in which all tenants in rental properties, students and non-students alike, would be required to register. This way, the town could keep track of the number of people in each dwelling unit. The town would also need to implement meaningful fines for landlords, property managers and tenants who ignore the registration requirement and who exceed the cap on four unrelated persons.

My neighbor and I are also proposing that a responsible person (e.g., a signatory of the rental lease) be designated by leaseholders and entered into the renter registration database. That person would be mandated to provide their Social Security number, which is necessary if a nuisance property citation is to be issued to the property by the police.

In this way, renters, most of whom are UMass undergraduates, would be induced to refrain from the kinds of all-night partying, littering, and rowdiness that are making life increasingly difficult for long-term residents of my neighborhood.

Alex Kent lives in Amherst.