During a discussion of the residential rental property by-law at the July 28 meeting of the Amherst Community Resources Committee, some members expressed support for increasing the number of non-relatives (i.e. -d. students) allowed to rent accommodation not occupied by the owner.
The proposal is perplexing, especially in light of neighborhood residents’ responses to a recent Engage Amherst online survey, which cited overcrowding in student rentals as a top concern they would like revisions to the bylaw to address.
The following rationales have been advanced for increasing the number of student tenants per unit and my response to each:
■ “It is fairer to allow more roommates to share the rent.
Most landlords charge per room per tenant. It’s not like a house is advertised at $4,000 a month, no matter how many tenants reside there. One particularly egregious landlord owned three houses on the 300 block of Lincoln Avenue and each rented to eight students, charging more than $7,000 a month per house. The block quickly descended into chaos. Between the three houses, there were at least 24 tenants. When each had a guest or two, it brought 48-72 more people to a small block, with cars coming and going (and gatherings in the back yard and on the front lawn), well past the hour at which their non-student neighbors have gone for the night.
Surrounding non-student households will be further affected by the number of students with more cars than current law allows and many other guests at all hours of the day and night. The current law, although imperfect, at least attempts to establish a balanced neighborhood between families, seniors, non-students and students.
The more insidious problem is that once landlords can rent out a single property to multiple tenants, it makes the whole business all the more profitable. As things stand, investors outbid ordinary people when homes come up for sale. When it becomes even more lucrative for landlords to rent to six to eight (or more) students instead of four, investor properties will only increase at the expense of everyone else who has a stake in maintaining balanced neighborhoods. .
No matter how many tenants are allowed, there will always be houses with more roommates than allowed. Raise the limit to six and you’ll have eight, and so on. “Fixing” a violation by removing the rule that is broken is like lowering the drinking age to reduce underage drinking.
Allowing landlords to increase the number of tenants per unit will not reduce our property taxes, but it may well drive neighboring families and other non-student households out of Amherst forever. Some may not mind long-term residents moving out of neighborhoods to make way for more student rentals. They may even favor this “solution”. UMass gets the accommodations it does not provide for its students; investors reap higher profits per rental unit; and life goes on undisturbed for those who reside in our most protected enclaves and in areas of the city not yet targeted by absentee investors.
Of course, this is all very myopic. No matter where one resides in Amherst, it is not in the city’s long-term interest to continue losing year-round residents. As revealed by the 2020 census, Amherst’s non-student population is in decline. And a town made up mostly of student rentals doesn’t pay. Amherst, with a population of approximately 39,000 (including approximately 25,000 students) has an annual operating budget of approximately $90 million. Our neighbor, Northampton, with a population of just under 28,500, has an annual operating budget of almost $126 million. Losing more residents year round is not the answer to our budget shortfalls.
To remain a healthy, viable, and attractive city, we need families to send children to our K-12 schools, year-round residents to support a 12-month economy, patrons for our new library, and a strong population of year-round residents who serve on our boards and commissions and who are invested in the long-term well-being of Amherst.
At the July 28 CRC meeting, I was told that “neighbourhoods change”. Yes, that’s probably true. But is the loss of our longtime family quarters to those populated mostly by absentee-owned student housing (to which occupants move every nine to twelve months) really the change we want – or need? need ?
Jennifer Taub is an Amherst City Councilor representing District 3 and a member of the Community Resources Committee.