John Varner: Amherst needs to revamp, enforce its student housing rules

Friday, February 18, 2022

‘The Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” — A pirate captain explaining the “Pirate’s Code” to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow

Although this is a quote from a “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, it seems to also be the Amherst policy regarding student rentals. Amherst has a student rental housing code, but I’d prefer actual rules — comprehensive rules that reliably and consistently connect infractions of town policies to the imposition of penalties spelled out in those policies. Rules that don’t require complaints from cranky neighbors to sometimes trigger action.

Amherst has “talked the talk” when it comes to at least some regulation of student rentals and behavior. There is a police liaison, tasked with de-escalating potential student-police interactions. There is a housing inspector with the thankless and hopeless job of inspecting hundreds of rentals and enforcing policies meant to curb landlords preying on students and students disrupting neighborhoods. There are rules stipulating fines of $100 a day for infraction of town codes.

But when it comes to “walking the walk,” Amherst is stumbling at best. Residents pay town taxes for the services the town provides. Right now, the town is providing landlords great opportunities to get richer. It is not providing the rules and enforcement that should protect the owners of single-family houses.

I am curious to know how many times landlords have actually been cited for violations in the previous few years, how to find out who those landlords are, and how much the town has collected in fines. In the Amherst Bulletin police log, we hear about officers responding to calls about wildlife in distress, loose livestock, and drunken drivers being ticketed, but I have never seen these citations mentioned. Why is this not considered important community news?

To put the issue in blunt personal terms: Landlords make a bundle renting houses to students at $1,000/bedroom, but if their student rental property is close to your house, you will find your property value and quality of life reduced. With a rewrite of Amherst’s zoning in progress, it is a good opportunity to address this. There needs to be creative solutions for more student housing worked out between the town and UMass.

Amherst needs to seriously revamp its regulations regarding student housing rentals, and support and adequately fund mechanisms for their enforcement. Even if you do not have a student house across the street from your home (yet), Amherst’s lax policies are pricing middle class families out of the housing market and thereby eroding the elements that have made the town attractive: a well-funded school system with active family participation, a tranquil, semi-rural yet intellectually stimulating setting, and a vibrant community where people care and look out for the welfare of their neighbors.

John Varner lives in Amherst.