Amherst is the new Manhattan

The housing crisis for UMass upperclassmen living off-campus

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Ana Pietrewicz / Daily Collegian

By Rónán Fitzgerald, Collegian Contributor

“I’m living an hour and a half away.”

“My plan was to live in a tent in the woods.”

“It was all a fiasco.”

Let’s take a glimpse at some off-campus living situations at the University of Massachusetts this semester. For many, affordable housing options are limited like never before, driving students to take drastic measures to live in the area and attend their classes.

Senior journalism major Madeline Zelazo couldn’t find a place that was within her budget and allowed her two cats. Now, she’s forced to live an hour and a half from campus with a friend’s aunt and uncle.

“I would apply for apartments, and they would get back to me saying ‘you need to make three times the amount we’re asking,’” Zelazo said. “If I [did], I wouldn’t be renting there. I would be buying a mansion, not applying to a stupid one-bedroom apartment that’s falling apart.”

Should a student like Zelazo, who works 25 hours per week at Walgreens to keep up with her car, living and education expenses, not be able to secure reasonable housing? How about graduate student and wildfire fighter, Brady Millin?

Coming from Montana and unable to visit any of the Amherst area properties in person, Millin was forced to make other arrangements. That meant bouncing from Hotel UMass to a bed-and-breakfast for about a week and eating out every day.

“I spent just under a grand,” Millin said. “Every day I was on Craigslist looking for places, even looking for places in Hartford. I had no luck.”

Days away from abandoning his housing search in favor of camping in the woods for the rest of the semester, Millin finally found his luck on Reddit from another UMass student who couldn’t manage the commute from Northampton without a car. Even after a month of housing insecurity, Millin feels he “was among the more fortunate.”

This is all too common a problem for upperclassmen at UMass. A statement from Mary Dettloff, deputy director of the news and media relations office, said that “Undergraduate housing will eventually increase by 600 beds. Approximately 200 beds of graduate student, apartment-style housing…[and] approximately 120 family housing units” will also increase.

While that infrastructure is much needed, UMass has enrolled more upperclassmen over the last five years than the number of beds they plan to open up in 2022 and 2023. The hundreds of graduate students that would live in the now demolished Lincoln Apartments have been sent into the fray of the Amherst housing market. While soft deadlines of a year or two might work as talking points, the University needs to provide this infrastructure—or at least a temporary alternative—to compensate for the scarcity of off-campus options.

Doctoral student and father of two Shahnaz Bashir had to enlist the help of journalism Professor Kathy Roberts Forde in order to find housing. Miraculously, Professor Forde found a place from a friend right before the semester began—albeit hardly large enough for Bashir’s family of four. Bashir is still looking for better accommodations, but as one of his relatives said, “[I] haven’t seen such difficulty of people finding housing in Manhattan.”

And herein lies the problem, for both undergraduate and graduate students alike: a lack of reasonable solutions amidst dwindling federal funding.

In January 2019, UMass spokesperson Ed Blaguszewski told MassLive, “The University’s enrollment of out-of-state students has increased as state support for UMass has stagnated.” While UMass may have a plan to adjust for these expenses, many of its students don’t have that luxury. We’re not Chuck Bass or Serena Van der Woodsen of “Gossip Girl,” as much as the University seems to think we are.

In reality, Amherst is in a Manhattan-like housing crisis and UMass students are now turning to agencies meant for the houseless to just live here. Executive Director of Amherst Community Connections Hwei-Ling Greeney has received calls from students for the first time ever. Why? There are just over 9,000 households in Amherst. And this semester, just over 9,000 students needed to find off-campus options if they wanted to attend in-person classes. That means there were enough off-campus students just from UMass, let alone the other four colleges in the area, to virtually fill every household in Amherst this semester.

While this has always been an issue, it’s especially worse this year. Many students who have graduated from UMass and from the other four colleges in the area aren’t leaving their housing accommodations, as noted by Greeney and Dettloff. This trend seems to have stemmed from the rise in remote work among students, vastly reducing the need to relocate because of one’s job. Of course, this is neither the fault of UMass nor the housing market, but it is certainly a compounding factor that hasn’t affected enrollment rates or rising housing costs.

Despite all these factors, Dettloff believes that “a perceived increase in enrollment is too simplistic.”

Yes, there are a multitude of factors at play here, like the lack of housing infrastructure, high market prices and pandemic irregularities. Enrollment may not be the only reason, but to reduce the enrollment trend to a “perceived increase” doesn’t address the facts of the University’s actions. There needs to be accountability from the University for dealing with its financial woes at the expense of students’ housing.

For those who shared the walls with Millin in the bed-and-breakfast, or didn’t have a friend’s uncle to stay with, where would they go to live and continue their education? What if Bashir and his family never went to Professor Forde for help? UMass, we need answers. Your thousands of students who aren’t guaranteed housing need answers. Your town needs answers. The beds you have yet to build are already overfilled.

Ronan Fitzgerald can be reached at [email protected]