Point Counter Point | Town and students need to communicate
Over the past year we’ve heard a lot about the Amherst town bylaw that disallows a group of more than four unrelated people from living in a single house together. We’ve heard that it makes some college students homeless, that it has been used selectively to target a single house full of young women and that it constitutes another volley in the never-ending battle between “us” students and “them” townies. After all, if a student rents a portion of a house they ought to have the right to live in the space for which they paid, and if the townies don’t like living next to students who perhaps have some friends over on Friday and Saturday nights they can talk to the landlord. Right?
That’s what I knew about the subject, until I went to the town planning office to investigate. Unfortunately, our initial conception is not exactly right. The situation actually has far more complexity than a simple conception of renters’ or students’ rights set against old townies’ desires could portray.
Before we can go further in our discussion of the ‘Four-Renter Bylaw,’ we need to establish some basic facts and context. This bylaw governs the definition of a “family” with respect to state law on how many people can live in a single “dwelling unit” of permanent or semi-permanent residential housing. It doesn’t apply to dormitories, hotels, apartment buildings or hostels, of course, because such mass housing obtains specific zoning permits from the town so as to put it where it can thrive best in the community. A “dwelling unit” refers specifically to a space consisting of a functioning kitchen, a functioning bathroom, and additional living space (such as a living room, bedroom, etc.). Since in Amherst we don’t actually have that many specifically-zoned apartment buildings outside of the North Apartments on campus, this bylaw refers to houses that are rented out to groups of students, houses divided into apartments and rented to students or townhouses.
This bylaw has existed for decades, and in fact at least one previous attempt was made to change it on behalf of students in 1991. It is legal and constitutional, and every time students have taken the initiative to have it changed the Amherst community has erupted in backlash against the initiative. Other college towns – such as Northampton, Mass., Fairfield, Conn., and Oneonta, N.Y. – have similar laws, and these bylaws exist for a specific purpose. The community is responsible for maintaining standards of health and sanitation throughout their neighborhoods, and this bylaw exists because college students usually don’t rent long-term enough to actually integrate into the neighborhood and develop a rapport with the other residents. It’s sad, but without some sense of connection many college students really do cause incredible noise issues. If you don’t believe me, just try going to the Townhouses or Hobart Street in North Amherst on a Friday night. If I was married with kids, I wouldn’t want to live around that myself. Of course, it doesn’t help that college kids throwing parties never invite their non-student neighbors, and it actively hurts the situation that landlords live far away from the students living in their property, out of the reach of neighbors’ complaints.
On the other hand, we students really shouldn’t need to fight for our right to party, but changing a town bylaw meant to prevent over-renting of housing space won’t actually help with that. The fundamental limits on the right to party remain the drinking age, sin taxes on alcohol and the illegality of marijuana. If we want the fight for throwing our hands in the air like we just don’t care, we ought to focus on those issues, closer to the core of things. The full-time residents of the town of Amherst are entitled to attempt to maintain mainstream, if fogeyish, standards of community living.
However, this still leaves an essential question: how could a student obtain a lease to space in which they cannot legally live? According to Jonathan Tucker, planning director for the Town of Amherst, “If we had an effective rental registration system this would be less of a problem.” This, he explained, means an official register or ledger of rented housing units in the town kept in order to ensure compliance with the laws. The same absentee landlords who keep themselves well away from Amherst neighbors are often ignorant of (or simply ignore) the town bylaw, and rent out their properties to more people than can actually live in them. So while the town may seem a bit inconsiderate telling students to simply get out of housing they rented fair-and-square, especially in this housing market, the actual blame rests with the same guy who refuses to fix the leaking sink or the blown fuses. It turns out that he doesn’t mind taking money for space he can’t rent, either.
Since students and townies alike share Amherst year-to-year, we ought to have the good sense to work together in order to find housing for the potentially evicted while still letting family neighborhoods keep a more familial atmosphere.
Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.