Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass’ role in the Amherst housing crisis

The University’s limited housing for an increasing student body poses challenges for students and Amherst residents
Paul Chibeba

Over the years, both University of Massachusetts students and year-round Amherst residents have found it more difficult to find affordable housing in town.

In the 2022-23 school year, UMass housed over 100 freshmen and transfer students at a hotel in Hadley. That spring, students protested the University’s announcement that it would no longer be able to guarantee housing for all undergraduates who request it.

John Hornik, former chair of the Amherst Municipal Housing Trust, said UMass’ rising enrollment over the past two decades has driven the University and town’s housing problems. Since 2004, UMass’ total undergraduate population has grown by over 5,000, and the construction of new on-campus housing has not kept pace with the growing student population.

Darrel Ramsey-Musolf, associate professor of regional planning, explained the cause of the housing crisis in UMass and Amherst is twofold, caused both by UMass’ inaction to meet the student housing demand and Amherst zoning laws that complicate housing construction.

Showing statistics from 2014, UMass had 25,000 students and 14,000 beds. “So we’re at 97 percent occupancy. That means that everybody [else] is looking for something… if you’re the private sector, that’s wonderful, because then you can charge whatever you want,” Ramsey-Musolf said.

The shortage of on-campus housing has caused housing adjacent to UMass to become increasingly expensive. But because there is not enough housing to meet the demand of people searching for it, prices rise, posing affordability problems for students and town residents.

In response, many students have been renting farther off campus, which complicates daily commutes and often adds transportation costs.

Milou Rigollaud, one of Ramsey-Musolf’s students and a recent UMass graduate with a BDIC in ethical housing and construction, explained that “a lot of people end up going to neighboring towns. So if you go east, you get into Pelham, and there are a lot of people that live there because it’s a little bit cheaper than Amherst, but you need to have a car. There’s one bus that goes towards there and Belchertown at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and maybe some time during the middle of the day, but it’s not accessible.”

He added that people of Amherst and neighboring towns don’t “want students to expand” into their neighborhoods, but students have limited options due to the scarcity of on-campus housing.

Emma Coles, another student of Ramsey-Musolf and an MPPA candidate, added “UMass is hiring all these new faculty and over admitting students… but there’s nowhere for these students to live and then the town has to take that burden on, when it’s UMass’ problem essentially.”

Her point begins to explain how Amherst’s year-round residents have also been impacted by UMass’ housing challenges. About half of the town’s population is now students, primarily those from UMass. As a result, there has been an increase in housing construction for students, but almost none for new single-family homes.

According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette,  there have been 862 new housing units permitted in Amherst since 2015, and only 82 of them have been single-family homes.

Additionally, as Hornik explained, many properties that used to be single-family homes have been recently bought by developers and converted into housing for students. These changes limit the housing available for year-round Amherst residents, leading to higher prices of homes. Coles said the median price of a single-family home in Amherst has increased from $389,000 (adjusted for inflation) in 2012, to $450,000 in October 2023.

Coles added that Amherst’s homeless population has also been increasing. In 2019, the Amherst point-in-time count, which aims to count the number of unsheltered people in a town on one night, reported 16 homeless people in Amherst, while the January 2023 point-in-time count reported 82 people, both in shelters and on the streets.

These statistics all indicate there is not enough housing development in Amherst. Katherine Wellington, another student of Ramsey-Musolf and a graduate statistics student said, “There’s a long term need for significant increase in housing units. Units did not originally align with the expansion of the student population in Amherst.”

But starting new construction in Amherst is not always simple. Ramsey-Musolf explained that there are essentially only four places in town — Pomeroy Village, downtown Amherst, East Amherst and North Amherst — where higher-density housing can be built, because much of Amherst is zoned as farmland preservation or low-density residential land. Amherst’s zoning also allows for limited mixed-use development.

Public response to new construction is another hurdle. The recent increase in denser, student-aimed housing in Amherst has prompted debate among town residents.

Hornik noted one example of town opposition to housing construction in 2019, before the approval of the East Gables housing project in Amherst, which consists of 28 studio apartments for low-income individuals. Several citizens, especially those who lived on neighboring streets, wrote to town council members and spoke at town council meetings in opposition of the project.

However, “Another group of people organized people to speak on behalf of and write letters on behalf of the project, and ultimately that side prevailed,” Hornik said. Town council then approved the project for construction, and it was built in 2022.

There are several reasons for residents’ complaints. Often noted is that the concern about losing town integrity evokes emotional responses from many residents. Freshman communications major Lia Cullen, whose family lives about 10 minutes away from campus, said it’s strange to see Amherst, once a small town, becoming more urban.

Cullen noted that not many Amherst residents are happy about the new construction. “I feel like it’s a common topic upon adults where they’re like, ‘Oh, we heard about the new apartment.’ I don’t think they appreciate it,” she said. One apartment was built right next to her house, and her neighbors had to sell a part of her land.

But as Ramsey-Musolf explained, new construction is necessary in decreasing housing prices in the long run. He explained a process called “filtering,” in which even if the majority of new construction is targeted towards a specific population — for example, students or wealthier residents — people moving into those new units free up units for the rest of the population to move into.

“But if nothing’s being built, no one can go anywhere,” Ramsey-Musolf said. Therefore, higher-density housing construction is needed to increase the supply of affordable housing options.

Ramsey-Musolf also explained it is possible to increase housing in Amherst without losing the historical character of the town.

In reference to the Kendrick Place apartment building in downtown Amherst, “This wasn’t doing context-sensitive design,” he said. “There was a way that you could have done the same massing… that would have made it much more palatable. But this is modern, it’s contemporary. It’s just like our campus, which works on our campus because it has an urban flair, but may not necessarily work downtown… the design matters. We need the units, but you can have the types of designs and context-sensitive architectural design that fits in with the existing character.”

Rigollaud added that, in its Housing Production Plan, the town of Amherst “says that it’s not simply about adding new housing units, but doing so in a way that preserves the character of the town… Amherst College is on the other side of downtown and they build phony colonies …like fake colonial houses and all of these old-looking buildings all the time, because they want to fit the character. So it’s definitely doable. It’s just a matter of how closely Amherst and the developers want to stick to the preservation of town character.”

A sentiment shared by Hornik, as well as Ramsey-Musolf and his students, was that the town of Amherst needs greater housing density to remedy the housing crisis, but because local residents are reluctant towards development and the high housing prices that accompany, a significant amount of new construction must happen on campus.

Though UMass has recently constructed new family housing and apartment buildings, those buildings replaced the North Village and Lincoln Apartments, so they did not ultimately add a significant number of housing units for students.

“The big thing, I think, is that UMass needs to pull its weight more,” Rigollaud said. “The reason there’s this pushback and sort of animosity towards UMass [from Amherst residents] is that they’re very overbearing on this town.”

This goal is not unrealistic. Ramsey-Musolf explained that UMass partnered with U3 Advisors in 2014 to identify spaces on and around campus where student housing could be built, highlighting “high quality housing for as many students as possible” as a top priority. They identified four underdeveloped areas on UMass-owned land.

“So the University has places for growth,” Ramsey-Musolf said.

Annika Singh can be reached at [email protected].

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