Amherst residents speak out on student rental issues

AMHERST — About 8,000 undergraduate students, or more than one in three who attend the University of Massachusetts, will not be living in dorms this fall.

For some Amherst residents who have seen an influx of students into their neighborhoods, the city and UMass need to do more to avoid the negative impacts of these rental properties.

“UMass outsources housing to developers,” says Lynn Morgan, a Cherry Lane resident who recently raised her concerns directly with Tony Maroulis, the university’s executive director of community and strategic initiatives. Maroulis was participating in an in-person community conversation with City Manager Paul Bockelman at the Black Sheep Deli in downtown Amherst.

Morgan, who has watched student housing encroachment after 30 years in the city, recently sent a letter to the city council asking it to do something about stemming student housing, which has emerged as major investment opportunities, but can create noise issues such as parties, parking and sometimes poor maintenance.

“Additionally, young families of modest means are being shut out of Amherst as investors scoop up single-family homes at the lower end of the price range and turn them into short-term rentals, transforming family neighborhoods,” Morgan wrote.

Update of regulations

The concerns come as the city council’s Community Resources Committee studies how to deal with the problem of undergraduates living in rental housing in single-family neighborhoods and whether so-called absentee landlords should be held more accountable.

The committee will propose updates to the current bylaws, passed by the city assembly in 2013, which are exclusively complaints-based, with the possibility that city inspectors will be able to make more regular visits to properties for violations. Under the current system, any landlord who rents must complete a self-certification checklist that ensures the home or apartment is up to code.

Similar to Morgan’s concerns, Strong Street’s Ira Bryck said he saw obvious violations, such as a neighboring house with six unrelated roommates, exceeding the city’s cap of four unrelated roommates.

“It’s ruining the city,” Bryck said of those homes, adding that such situations illustrate that UMass should be pressured by the city to build more housing.

Others asked what it would take for UMass to house nearly all undergraduate students on campus, as colleges in Amherst and Hampshire do.

Maroulis, however, said that was not an appropriate comparison and that as a public institution, UMass was already equal to or better than many of its peers when it came to housing, even though 120 transfer students were expected to spend the fall semester at the EconoLodge hotel in Hadley.

Over the past few years, Maroulis said 13,500 beds have been offered on the UMass campus, which will grow to 14,300 beds this fall because demand on campus is so high.

Maroulis attributes the demand to more students seeking the experience of dorm life after their college careers have been disrupted by the pandemic.

He also disputed the intention to bring too many students into town. “We don’t over-enroll, but we don’t promise housing to all students,” Maroulis said.

The 22,700 undergraduate students, in fact, might represent a slight drop from last fall.

keep track

Maroulis pointed out that a positive change in recent years is having detailed details of where students live off-campus, checking whether they are in Amherst, Hadley, Sunderland or other nearby communities. It was the result of COVID-19 and the need to isolate infections among students.

He also praised the work of Bill Laramee, the police department’s Community Liaison Officer, and city ambassadors, who have done outreach to off-campus students that helps reduce complaints about issues in the neighborhoods. Maroulis, however, acknowledged that the past year has been one of the toughest from a public safety perspective in a long time. Pre-St. St Patrick’s Day festivities, once known as the Blarney Blowout, have worsened, particularly at Townehouse Apartments, where fencing installed to reduce large gatherings saw people climbing over them, with at least one person seriously injured after to have been impaled.

Meanwhile, Maroulis said joint discussion and planning with Amherst on housing needs and other topics is something UMass is interested in. “Where we are going, we have to go together,” he said.

Access to housing for faculty and staff is a component of the university’s goal of achieving a net zero campus, he explained, and that if those it employs have to live away from campus and driving is not a good thing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Bockelman said the university remains the lifeblood of the city, and adjustments to the leasing program will allow them to be run more productively. Still, he said the city is grappling with the zoning issue and whether there are ways to discourage further investment in rental properties.

There aren’t many tools available to stop people from buying houses and then turning them into student rentals, he said.

One tool being discussed is whether Amherst should adjust the limit of four unrelated roommates. A higher cap could reduce demand for off-campus rental housing.

Ken Rosenthal of Sunset Avenue, however, said he and other student-affected people in neighborhoods would prefer to see the cap reduced and the limit increased to three unrelated roommates. This would serve to reduce the profits landlords make on rentals.

Another concept Rosenthal said has been rolled out in some college towns is requiring a set distance between rental properties, which would make it impossible to string student rentals along a street.

Scott Merzbach can be contacted at [email protected]

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