Engagement Improves Affordable Housing Design

The Student published several articles on the proposed affordable housing development at 132 Northampton Road. Most recently, the paper covered the visit from Amherst town councilors to the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) last Monday, Feb. 17, which aimed to promote student engagement in the current 30-day comment period for the development, amongst other town-related issues.

Coverage about the proposed development, including last week’s article, has characterized the letters and presentations made by neighbors of the development as “opposition” or “pushback” to the affordable housing project proposal.

As we move forward as a community discussing this development and other issues, I hope we can distinguish carefully between “opposition” and critical engagement to improve policy. Now that the developer (Valley CDC) has submitted its application to the state (dated on Jan. 22), it is possible to see how and why the critical engagement of neighbors was important: it led to substantive improvements for the future residents of this development.

Clearly, there is a crucial need for more affordable housing in the Town of Amherst and across the state of Massachusetts. As documented by the town’s 2015 Housing Market Study, strong demand for housing has pushed up the prices of rental units and moderately sized homes, particularly those close to the town center. High tax rates also contribute to a situation where units and homes available to previous generations of workers and families are now out of reach for many. The number of people experiencing homelessness in Massachusetts was counted at more than 18,000 in January 2019 according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Responding to these needs, a core goal of the current Town Council is to increase the supply of housing, with a specific focus on setting aside more units for low and moderate-income residents. The Amherst Affordable Housing Trust Strategic Plan (FY18‐FY22) notes that “the largest unmet need is housing for people with disabilities, followed by housing suitable for families and for seniors. In addition, there is an unmet need for housing for persons who are experiencing chronic homelessness.”

At meetings this summer, neighbors did not question these goals. In fact, the much discussed letter signed by more than 50 neighbors explicitly noted support for affordable housing at this site, as did my own letter to the Town Council and the public presentations made by neighbors last June. Neighbors and abutters did, however, question many of the specifc details of the planned development, including the number of units and the corresponding small size of the apartments, the lack of close public transportation, the costeffectiveness of the plan and the developer’s record in providing appropriate support for residents at the other properties they own.

The development plans as currently submitted include substantial changes and answers to some of these key questions. The revised proposal includes more hours of on-site support for the highly vulnerable population being served, which specifically includes individuals transitioning from homelessness and with documented needs for on-going mental health support. There are details and signed agreements for specific partnerships with nearby supportive-service providers. The architectural plan has been revised to now provide more privacy for the development’s residents and more screening from the dis-amenities of noise and tailgating events at Pratt Field. The developer is also considering allowing overnight guests (a companionship benefit urged for by neighbors).

These improvements to the plan demonstrate the value of asking questions and analyzing data about specific plans for affordable housing, even when the goals are shared.

Serious questions still remain about the current plan. Is the level of support for this project now enough and how will that be evaluated? What will happen to residents who might earn more money over time — will they be forced out of these apartments because they are no longer eligible according to income restrictions? Are the developer’s expectations for how residents without cars will manage commutes and grocery pick-ups without a bus stop realistic? Why does the development not include any family units — including for families transitioning from homelessness — when that is the most critical housing need identified by the state and town and a repeated request by neighbors? Is it fair for the developer to receive more than half a million dollars in developer fees, funded by taxpayers, or could those charges be reduced?

I believe there are solutions to these potential issues that can be found through smart design and management. Participatory processes could lead to further improvements to the plan that could benefit the new residents.

I hope that the developer will continue to work with neighbors and engaged students to ensure its success. Most importantly, I hope that as a community, we can keep open channels of informed and constructive dialogue so that we arrive at the best possible solutions to the critical need for affordable housing.