Three town councilors, two of them representing District 4 — a district which includes the college — addressed students during an Association of Amherst Students (AAS) meeting on Feb. 17 to discuss the town’s involvement in constructing an affordable housing site at 132 Northampton Road, upcoming proposals in the town of Amherst and methods for students to get involved in local politics.
The event, which was held in Cole Assembly Hall at 8:30 p.m., came into fruition after District 4 Councilors Evan Ross and Stephen Schreiber, along with At-Large Town Council Member Mandi Jo Hanneke, approached AAS on the heels of last semester’s affordable housing controversy in hopes of garnering student input. Last November, The Student revealed that Valley CDC, a Northampton-based non-profit, moved forward with plans to build an affordable housing unit on Northampton Road adjacent to Pratt Field despite pushback from neighbors, which included professors at the college. In the aftermath of the story’s release, students expressed frustration with professors’ opposition to the plan and demonstrated widespread support for the project.
“The AAS and the visiting councilors both hope that this will be an opportunity to increase communication and collaboration with each other in the future, cooperating and making suggestions to various town matters when necessary. If there are town issues that can potentially affect the whole college community … maintaining correspondence with town councilors would be a very effective way for the student body to voice our opinions and thoughts on various affairs. The AAS is hoping this event will be the first of many in the future, constantly strengthening our relationship with the Town Council,” AAS Secretary Noah Kim ’22, who helped organize the town councilors’ visit, said in an email interview.
The councilors began the discussion by directly addressing the town’s plans for the affordable housing project and laid out the next steps of the process. Last year, the Town Council approved $500,000 in funding for the project, which costs $5 million in total. The remaining funds, however, need to be secured from the state government, with a public comment period currently underway.
Though students were not an active voice in the town’s public hearings, Ross emphasized the potential role students could have at the state level for this project.
District 4, which includes 132 Northampton Road, “is actually a very student heavy district,” Ross said, encompassing not only the college but also UMass Amherst students living in off-campus residences. “And yet, when Steve and I have district meetings and when we have public forums, we’re not seeing students.”
“There’s an important voice missing from the conversation. Because while we heard a lot from the neighbors who were concerned about their neighborhood, we also heard a lot of concerns from you. One of the concerns was ‘will students from Amherst College be safe?’ and one of the [groups of] people we weren’t hearing from was Amherst College students,” he added.
In letters written to Town Council in opposition of the project, several cited potential drug use near Pratt Field and increased crime rates near the college as a cause for concern.
Ross also noted that other members of the college community apart from students have a stake in the affordable housing projects. Of the 26 units, while some will be reserved for those transitioning out of homelessness, many of them will be labeled as “workforce housing,” which serves those who tend to be priced out of the housing market.
“If you stick around after you graduate, you’ll find that [Amherst] is a fairly difficult place to find an affordable rental. So it’s a really hard place for people, especially people at lower ends of income,” he said. “These are people who probably work on campus here or work, say, at UMass in dining halls, or are adjunct lecturers, or work in facilities.”
The conversation then moved towards other issue areas that students could get involved in. Hanneke highlighted a Town Council proposal to regulate parking on Lincoln Ave., a street adjacent to Seligman House. The proposal aims to ban parking on the west side of the street and prohibit parking between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on the eastside.
“It may not seem as college students that … as Town Council and town affairs really affect you. But things like this can affect you. And it’s important to then keep up with what’s going on because they can have a real effect on the students and your quality of life, your ability to find parking in town or go visit your fellow colleagues who happened to live in that dorm,” Hanneke said.
The upcoming census, which will take place on April 1, was another point in which Hanneke underscored as an avenue for student participation in town affairs. According to a report from the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Amherst is the ninth hardest municipality to count in the state, primarily because of its large college student, elderly and homeless populations.
“The important thing about the census is that for the next 10 years, it not only determines how many congressional delegates we get, but for every person that we miss is $2,200 that the town loses in federal and state funding … That adds up to a lot of money,” Hanneke said.
The councilors then moved to field questions from the audience, in which students asked how to become a part of Town Council and the effects of the census on political districting.
Through the range of questions, the councilors continued to emphasize the impact students can have in Town Council. “If you care about an issue, whether that’s housing, climate or socioeconomic diversity, and you email [Senators] Elizabeth Warren or Ed Markey about it, a very friendly staffer will send you a very friendly form response. [Warren and Markey are] never gonna read it,” Ross said.
“But if you email us, we will read your emails, and you’ll get an actual response from one of us. And so the the impact per unit effort is just so much higher at a local level than it is at state or federal level,” he added.
AAS President Avery Farmer ’20 also detailed ways for students to get involved with both campus and town affairs in a phone interview with The Student, ranging from reading local news to attending AAS public hearings to voice their concerns.
“There’s a lot of opportunity that isn’t currently realized for our student government for our students to actually take the initiative in bringing town issues to campus,” he said.
“I would love to see at AAS meetings or via AAS email, students and people in the town sharing their opinions on what they think Amherst College and particularly the student body should be doing to involve itself.”