Affordable Housing Dispute Prompts Student Outcry

By Natalie De Rosa '21 || Issue 149-11

The 132 Northhampton Rd. site for the proposed affordable housing unit (shown above) borders Pratt and Gooding Fields. Letters by some Amherst College professors who opposed the housing proposal have since led to student backlash. Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Last week, The Student published an article on the new affordable housing project near Pratt Field — and its opposition from some Amherst College professors — consequently prompting a wide range of reactions. The article spurred open letters to the community and a public hearing by the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) on the issue.

In July, Amherst Town Council approved $500,000 of funding for a new affordable housing project at 132 Northampton Rd. Valley Community Development Corporation (Valley CDC), the developer of the unit, is a Northampton-based nonprofit that has erected similar projects across the Pioneer Valley. The site at 132 Northampton Rd. will house 28 “extremely low-income and near-homeless individuals” in single-room occupancy (SRO) residencies after construction begins in 2021, according to the Valley CDC.

In May, prior to the Town Council’s decision, multiple professors and staff members signed on to a joint letter written by neighborhood residents that articulated concerns about a lack of support structures for the site’s tenants as well as potential drug use. Though a few professors wrote letters to the council in support of the proposed project, faculty members also submitted their own letters expressing reservations about the proposed project.

After The Student reported on the letters on Nov. 13, the AAS sent an email to students on Nov. 17, noting that “in their actions as private citizens, professors do not speak on behalf of the student body.” The email invited students to attend AAS’s weekly meeting to share their thoughts during public comment. Students could also submit comments via an anonymous form or email the AAS.

AAS President Avery Farmer ’20 said that AAS members agreed to discuss the issue to gauge campus climate. “AAS can’t take a stand on the substance of what was said [in the letters]. We can’t argue for or against affordable housing on behalf of the whole student body without doing some kind of outreach in seeing what the student body thinks first,” Farmer said. “But what we can say is there was an implicit assumption in the way that the professors signed on to those letters … that somehow Amherst students were part of the weight that was making up their arguments. If you’re acting as a private citizen in a town matter, you can’t really cite Amherst students as one of the reasons for your concern if the students themselves have not expressed some kind of concern about that.”

Eliza Brewer ’22, president of Questbridge, an organization for low-income students, opened public comment by drawing attention to low-income students’ distrust after seeing the professors’ stances on affordable housing.

“I do think that there are important conversations to be had about first-generation, low-income students here and how they’re being advocated for,” Brewer said. “Personally, as a president of a student organization and a resident counselor, I’m very nauseated by the fact that if a student comes to me and says, ‘I’m having this problem and I need an advocate to help me,’ I have to think twice before I refer them to their dean or refer them to their professor.”

Senator Ilyssa Forman ’22 added that AAS’s role in representing students — including low-income students — should encourage senators to act. “I want to echo that we are a representing body and that it is our job to act on behalf of what the students feel and think, and this is definitely within our jurisdiction,” she said in the senate forum on Monday. “I just want to emphasize that on senate there are low-income people who hear you and feel you and who are on your side.”

Ben Gilsdorf ’21, another senator, encouraged the AAS to consider ways in which the organization could take action in response to the comments received. “One thing that I think that is really good is that they lost, that the people who were against this lost,” Gilsdorf said, underscoring the fact that the Town Council still voted in favor of the development. “I think the best way to respond is to throw our whole support behind it.” Gilsdorf also suggested writing letters to Valley CDC or hosting a public forum for members of the town and college community to continue dialogue on the issue.

After collecting students’ comments, the AAS will determine the best method to address concerns. Possible actions include reaching out to involved professors, sending a letter to Valley CDC reflective of the student body’s opinions or increasing funding for programs tailored to first-generation and low-income students. But exact next steps currently remain unclear. “We have to find a way to [take action] so it reflects our values and students’ but also stays within the boundaries of what AAS purview is,” Farmer said.

First-generation and low-income (FLI) student groups have also organized to write letters and opinion pieces in response to the professors’ letters to town council. One group of about 30 students, led by Isiaha Price ’21, met in Frost Cafe on Nov. 14 to brainstorm ways to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the professors’ opposition to the housing project. The group drafted a cover letter, set to publish on a to-be-decided date, so that students can submit personal stories relating to affordable housing.

In a draft of the cover letter, the group pushed back against the joint letter’s correlation between drug use and poverty and noted the disparity between the college’s promotion of its socioeconomic diversity and professors’ impressions of the project’s potential low-income tenants.

“We need look no further than the boundaries of Jenkins or the Triangle and the fact that 20 percent of Amherst College’s student population is from the richest echelons of society to see that drugs have always been on this campus and it never had anything to do with poverty,” the cover letter states. Jenkins Dormitory and the Triangle — a set of dorms comprised of Mayo-Smith Dormitory, Hitchcock Dormitory and Seelye Dormitory — are popular party locations at the college. The group plans to submit the compilation of stories to the professors listed in the joint letter so that they “can realize that sure, they have a legal right to petition … but also understand that you’re not voting against these nebulous abstract poor people. This could easily be any number of students and their families who may have been homeless themselves,” Price said.

Another group of FLI students, led by Brewer, submitted an op-ed to The Student outlining similar concerns. The group’s opinion piece criticizes the residents’ letter for promoting the profiling of tenants and leveraging their occupations — ranging from professors to medical doctors to psychologists — to decide the fate of the tenants.

“I think that in terms of the professors who say that they stand with the school’s mission, which part of that mission is … upward mobility and helping students from first-generation, low-income backgrounds to excel and to be able to support themselves in the future … I just think it’s hypocritical for them to say they align with the school’s mission,” Brewer said. She added that the group hopes the professors who signed and wrote letters to Town Council will reconsider and reflect on their position. “We [evoke] a call to action to the professors and say, ‘Look, we hope you sit with these words. We hope you educate yourselves,’” Brewer said. “We hope that you ask for grace because I think that will be given if you do. We’re not meaning to attack anyone, but we are wanting to take a critical look at the roles that we play as people who are in positions of power.”

Low-income students particularly expressed disappointment in Dean of New Students Rick Lopez — who has organized programming for FLI students, including summer bridge, a three-week pre-college program for incoming first years — in his decision to sign the joint letter from the residents.

“It’s appalling to me that in public and in his role as a dean, he comes in and tells students every summer that they belong here, and then as a private citizen endorses something that pretty clearly says that they don’t,” Brewer said. Price added that he was upset “the dean that talked to me at [the summer science bridge program] and welcomed me to this school and gave me a speech about how being first-generation and low-income added to the experience of Amherst … would then go sign that petition.”

In emails obtained by The Student, Lopez said in an exchange with Brewer that the initial dissent against Valley CDC’s project did not oppose affordable housing as a whole, but the use of SROs rather than family units. He stressed that the residents had hoped for increased on-site support for tenants with drug addictions.

According to Laura Baker, real estate project manager at Valley CDC, these concerns often contradict each other.

“Oftentimes people are asking us for competing things,” she said. “It’s impossible to do that because they conflict with each other. For example, folks who live nearby wanted to have more on-site support and more supervision of the property. So that drives increased operating costs. At the same time, they wanted less housing units there, which lowers the economic ability of the project to pay for staff.”

In the email exchange with Brewer, Lopez wrote that “it is unfortunate that you might feel that you no longer can turn to me for support, because in this debate about the unit development my goal was to advocate for housing for homeless families and to create structures of support for them.”

Outstanding concerns from FLI students in part instigated conversations about affordable housing in the AAS, according to Farmer. “I’ve been hearing a lot of reports of low-income and first-gen students … feeling like the professors who signed on to the letter were effectively making some kind of statement of hostility towards that kind of housing. Their families might have lived in them at one point or people they know may have taken advantage of [affordable housing],” Farmer said.

Residents of Humphries House — a dorm informally known as the Zu that sits across the street from Pratt Field — also pushed back at professors’ opposition to the housing project.

“We do not condone the classism implied in the concern over affordable housing in Amherst. We here at Zu live very close to the planned building and welcome new neighbors regardless of their incomes,” the Zu residents wrote in a statement to The Student. “It’s disturbing how quickly the conversation veered toward needles and halfway houses when there has been no mention of a drug rehabilitation center in the local coverage of the planned project. We ask those involved to remember that many Amherst students come from low-income households … In an expensive area like Amherst where many people have to commute to work, access to affordable housing is long overdue.”

Some students noted there is more nuance to the situation than what is seen at face value. While Michael Du ’20 disagrees with the sentiments expressed in the professors’ letters, he says he understands that the professors on the list signed on because “they want to preserve, for a lack of better words, the integrity of their community.”

Samuel Melcher ’22 said that the campus’ reaction was harsher than needed to be. “I think the reaction of Amherst students has generally been unfair to the residents and professors. I’ve seen personal attacks against them online, especially against Professor Sinos. As people who live in the area, their concerns are both understandable and legitimate. And as students who do not live here, it is not our place to belittle their concerns,” he said.

Several comments discussed at the AAS public hearing said that students’ outrage is unprecedented. Comments presented in front of the AAS addressed concerns including students’ approaches to criticizing professors who signed and submitted letters in opposition, potential drug abuse at the site and students’ lack of recognition of their privilege when speaking on the issue.