Suzannah Fabing Muspratt: As new zoning is discussed, some housing questions

Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Amherst Town Council members are holding district meetings in February, a good opportunity for citizens to ask questions.

One topic that I hope will be addressed is a cluster of zoning amendments currently under consideration that would dramatically alter every Amherst neighborhood. The overall purpose of these amendments is to increase housing density. Here are some questions that come to mind:

■ It’s said that Amherst has a “housing crisis.” What is the basis for this assessment? Is there more recent information than the 2015 Housing Market Study? Since then, Amherst has added more than 500 housing units. How many more would be needed to alleviate the “crisis”? How many of those 500 units are vacant?

■It’s said that building more housing would lower housing costs in town. What is the evidence for this? Have the 500 recent units had that effect? How do prices in Amherst compare to Northampton? Longmeadow? Boston suburbs?

■It’s said that building more housing would bring more money into town coffers, alleviating the tax burden on current homeowners. Have property taxes in fact gone down over the last five years? More residents mean more costs for town services like fire, police, sewers and schools. Would the net effect of population growth on town finances be positive or negative?

■It’s said that we want more families and workers living in town. How many of the new units are occupied by families/workers? If that number is small, why? What would we need to do differently?

■It’s said that we desperately need low-income and below-market-rate housing. The Affordable Housing Trust has been working hard to address this situation. Their goal is adding 250 affordable units over the next five to 10 years; projects that would potentially add 100-plus units are already in process. Why is Amherst not considering requiring affordable units in all sizable new projects?

■It’s said that many of Amherst’s housing problems stem from the fact that so many UMass students must live off campus. How many of those 500 units house students? How do the proposed zoning amendments address this issue?

Suzannah Fabing Muspratt