Guest columnist John Varner: Amherst, affordability and ‘slumification’

  • People walk through the downtown district in Amherst. AP

Thursday, September 16, 2021

In Amherst, neighborhoods are undergoing the process of gentrification in reverse (slumification). Houses in middle-class neighborhoods are being purchased as investments by wealthy individuals, LLC’s or developers, instead of becoming “starter houses” for young couples. These are then rented out to groups of students, and are often allowed to deteriorate, as their owners seek to maximize profit for their return in the shortest time possible.

Assuming they do not make nuisances of themselves, I have nothing against students who rent these properties. UMass is short of dorm space, but the town seems to be heavily favoring developers who are catering to the well-heeled with multi-story buildings in town center and North Amherst.

Many residents have issues with some of the landlords of student rental houses, when their properties become vehicles for the quick enrichment of a few at the lasting expense of the many. Virtually any neighborhood with a house worth less than $400,000 is at risk. A student rental or two on a given block might be innocuous, but after a tipping point is reached, there is a slide in behavior norms, property upkeep and values.

My street is now in danger of slumification. It has been an ideal neighborhood in which to raise kids, and families have done that since the early 1960s. We tend our lawns and houses, and seem to be in competition to see who can have the most appealing gardens.

However, my neighbors and I have had our worried eyes on two properties on the street. One was recently cheaply renovated, by a contractor who misinformed the neighborhood while he did the work. The other has an old roof that leaks in several spots, fascia boards and window casings are rotting away and the last coat of paint is peeling off in giant chunks. Both of the garage doors have fallen apart. Weeds grew knee-high and a dead tree precariously leans over the decaying house.

Both these houses went on the market in the past spring, and sold to the same individual, who simultaneously purchased three other houses in Amherst. The houses were rented without first getting the required permits to students who were out of town until fall, leaving the properties untended.

We neighbors are now waiting to see if our worst nightmares — obstreperous youth, late night parties, driving too fast up and down the street on which several young kids play, etc. — come to pass. We hope to welcome the new tenants to the neighborhood with a cookout to set things on a positive course.

In another part of town, abutters recently got a letter from their new student neighbors, who asked that they be called, not the police, in the event of late-night disturbances. These students promised to “behave reasonably,” if their neighbors did so, too. It’s unclear if this was a veiled threat, or just a poor word choice.

Landlords who fail to keep their properties up to neighborhood standards are making extra money by lowering the property values of everyone on the street through the deteriorating state of their “investments.” People have a right to invest their money in properties in the community. They should not have a right to enrich themselves at the direct expense of other residents by allowing their rentals to become “party central,” and/or fall into disrepair, thereby dragging down the property values of neighbors, and the tax base of the town.

Amherst has a housing availability problem. The causes include the national issue of income inequity. As more properties are transferred into fewer hands, the rich get richer and everyone else has trouble buying or renting affordably. This process has been accelerated by the expansion of UMass, which has grown 30% over the last 14 years without adding adequate dorm space.

Few on Town Council even recognized the conversion of single-family homes to student rentals as part of the problem in a recent town meeting. Town management seems more interested in furthering the interests of a few developers who pay lip service to diversity and adding “affordable housing” while clogging town with toney apartments built with little community input and no associated parking. There is no effort directed toward de-incentivizing get-rich-quick investors.

There are strategies to deal with this.

1. Reduce the number of unrelated individuals allowed in any one single-family house from four to three.

2. Mandate annual inspection as part of obtaining a rental permit. Landlords are theoretically fined $100/day for violations, but enforcement is sporadic and the official in charge is grossly overburdened, as all town rental properties are currently scheduled for re-inspection during the same short time frame. Owners must be held accountable to fix structural or appearance issues that adversely impact neighboring owners and renters, and offenders should have rental permits denied.

3. Track repeated complaints about noise or behavior and deny landlords renewal of the rental permit for the unit. If the property is being “managed,” the company involved should be fined and/or have its business license for Amherst revoked.

4. Establish a differential tax structure that favors single-family ownership. Real estate being held by investors and rented at exorbitant rates to students is a business, and should be taxed as such.

5. Require landlords and UMass to provide the vehicle registrations of tenants and students to the town, then collect excise taxes on these vehicles. Excise taxes are collected based on where the vehicle is “garaged’, i.e.: where the vehicle is parked long-term by its owner. These taxes are earmarked for traffic control and road maintenance. Student vehicles are essentially “garaged” in town, using Amherst roads and services. Amherst residents should not be expected to effectively subsidize student drivers.

6. Names of landlords repeatedly not in compliance with behavioral or structural codes should be published in the local paper. This would protect both student renters and their temporary neighbors — the long-term residents of Amherst.

There is much hand-wringing over affordable housing in Amherst, and what it means for the desirability and livability of Amherst. One major reason there is a housing shortage here is because investors are outbidding potential single-family buyers. It is well past-due that the government of our beautiful, proud little town puts policies in place to address slumification.

John Varner lives in Amherst.