Maurianne Adams: Valley CDC project a good fit for Amherst

By Maurianne Adams
Published: 6/20/2019
Daily Hampshire Gazette

Shortly after 2008, as the economy and housing market remained in recession, I read financial newsletters to better understand what was happening to the Amherst housing and rental market.

Investors, I discovered, were encouraged to invest in house purchases or rental development in college towns for the best bang for their buck, with a 6-9 percent projected return. No wonder out-of-town investors were buying up Amherst homes to turn into over-priced student rentals, creating a new high-end “normal” for Amherst housing.

More recently, as the economy has recovered, we’ve seen large residential developments marketed as high-end rentals at the same moment that Amherst is trying to maintain affordable rentals in Echo Hill and Rolling Green. Now the town is facing the loss of Amherst Motel and the eviction of its low-rent tenants to make room for something pricier. Where will those tenants live now that they are priced out of the Amherst rental market?

Amherst is a progressive town, even though off-campus student developments abutting Kendrick Park were approved without “inclusionary zoning” (meaning both affordable and market rate rental units) and the even larger North Square (Beacon) development has given us affordable units once the town approved 130 apartments, split 80/20 percent between market rate and affordable rents.

Into this picture enters Valley Community Development Corporation, an experienced nonprofit developer of affordable housing with a long track record of housing formerly homeless and low- and middle-income tenants.

Valley CDC deliberated with multiple Amherst bodies before proposing 28 mixed-income rentals that would house eight workforce individuals earning 50 percent of our area median income (AMI at $31,050) and eight earning up to 80 percent AMI ($49,700) — people with whom we interact with daily in town, in our schools and on our campuses. These people are entry level teachers, school aides, support staff and maintenance workers; dental technicians and medical assistants; clerks at downtown stores and offices, restaurants, pizza parlors and bars.

Thus, 16 of the 28 studio apartments will accommodate middle-income workforce and the remaining 12 units, at 30 percent AMI level ($18,650), provides a preference for formerly homeless people and two set-asides for disabled residents.

All of this was clearly laid out in Valley CDC’s proposal to Community Preservation Act Committee, and in its subsequent detailed responses to concerns raised by abutters and neighbors when the address of a building purchased by Valley CDC for this purpose, 132 Northampton Road, rang alarm bells for folks who considered the location of this project too close for comfort and who misunderstood the nature of the population to be served.

So how did the loaded term, SRO, or single-room occupancy, become the term of contention for opposition to this project? For better or worse, it was the technical or policy term overwhelmingly approved at spring 2017 Town Meeting, on the recommendation of the Planning Board.

Perhaps at that moment we were unaware of the stigma and stereotypes that had been attached over time, and in mainly urban settings, to SROs through their exaggerated identification with low-income or previously homeless individuals, assumed to be male, at times with racial overtones, and at times associated with drug or alcohol use and violence.

Thus, while the affirmative Town Meeting vote enabled Valley CDC to explore plans for an “enhanced SRO” facility to serve low- and extremely low-income individuals, the nonprofit has since settled on a different plan and developed its proposal for 28 mixed-income studio apartments for middle- and low-income rental housing.

Valley CDC’s decision to offer studio apartments as mixed-income rentals ranging from 30-80 percent AMI is a plan in everyone’s best interest: the town, the neighborhood and the tenants. And that’s the plan they proposed to CPAC, that CPAC recommended to the Finance Committee of the new Town Council, and is now the subject of an open meeting to be held by the council on June 24.

I write as a retired professor and lifelong educator who is shocked and disheartened by the absence of attention to what Valley CDC actually proposed and CPAC recommended, and which can readily be accessed on the town website for the Affordable Housing Trust, labeled under Northampton Road Project, Documents.

It is important that the council not prematurely enable abutter fears and concerns that have already been answered by Valley CDC’s documents. There will be ample opportunity, once the council approves the proposed bond issue that will enable the town to leverage over $4 million in state funding, for all interested parties to discuss the details of the project — size, dimension, safety, traffic, supervision, Valley-tenant-neighborhood liaison — as well as create opportunities to welcome to Amherst the workforce who have been priced out of the Amherst rental market.

But if we pre-empt this process, we are in danger of creating a double standard — one for profit-based developments and a different one for affordable mixed-income middle and low-income tenants.

Maurianne Adams is a 40-year Amherst resident and a retired UMA professor, active in neighborhood sustainability and affordable housing.