Guest columnist David Sloviter: Amherst zoning tweaks would just open door

By DAVID SLOVITER

Published: 06-21-2023 10:36 PM

The continuing effort by Town Councilors Mandi Jo Hanneke and Pat DeAngelis to push through their unnecessary, damaging, and misguided zoning changes is perplexing. The guest column n the June 17 Gazette [“Restoring the missing middle in Amherst housing”] demonstrates that they are relentless in their drive to remake Amherst into a place that fits their private agendas and their view that their way is the only way, regardless of extensive opposition from so many directions, including the Amherst Town Planning Department.

This is nothing more than an attempt to sell a badly running 1978 Ford Pinto and claim it is a late model Mercedes that will change your life. They would be right about one thing — their proposal might change life in Amherst, but it would not be for the better.

Their proposal would remove a layer of protection for the town while giving local developers and out-of-town investors even more freedom to do what they want without safeguards for the character of the town. There is not one provision that they propose that is not currently available to any homeowner or developer as long as the homeowner or developer goes through the currently reasonable process of applying.

The fast track they propose will sacrifice safeguards that are proven and needed. And to what end? The fast track will not reduce development costs, will not provide more affordable housing in an unregulated town where students snap up every rental at higher prices, and will not help Amherst to achieve a 12-month economy.

Amherst may have already passed the tipping point to becoming a student housing town with limited appeal for families and adults. Why would we adopt something to further accelerate the slide downhill?

The issue of housing, especially affordable housing, is a complicated one that defies simple and quick fixes. Whatever the extent of a shortage of “middle housing,” this proposal will do nothing to fix it and is likely to make it worse.

Does anyone honestly believe that a developer or homeowner will choose to build an affordable unit when they can make much more return on a unit to rent to students? Of course not. Where is the incentive to do that beyond altruism?

The overriding problem with housing in Amherst is that the town has never taken a stand with UMass that requires the university to more responsibly provide housing. There is a sentiment in certain factions of town leadership that accepts that the town will solve the UMass housing shortage. This is irresponsible and detrimental to our town and there is no indication that it will change under the current leadership of Hanneke, DeAngelis and their supporters.

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Amherst is the Wild West of off-campus student apartments. The economics of converting single-family homes to multi-unit student housing so heavily favors developers and out-of-town investors that it takes families out the market. Investors bid up the prices and families are shut out. A single-family home that is converted to house eight students can bring in $100,000 a year.

That is a cash cow annuity made possible by a lack of regulation. The current Hanneke/De Angelis proposal will remove some of the already inadequate protection.

All of this still raises the question of the motivation behind this proposal. Given how unlikely it is to provide more affordable housing, what is behind the obsessive nature of this campaign? Could it be to enhance the already dominant positions of developers and investors? They don’t need more help. The quality of life in Amherst does.

David Sloviter is a resident of Amherst. He is an associate member of the Zoning Board of Appeals. His opinion is his own and does not represent that of the ZBA.

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