Fallout From Affordable Housing Dispute Leads President Martin, AAS to Weigh in

Fallout from the affordable housing controversy continued through Thanksgiving break, with President Biddy Martin sending an email on the low-income housing project at the center of the debate to a group of students who identify as first-generation and low-income (FLI).

Backlash on campus began after The Student published an article on Nov. 13 that revealed details of a joint letter signed by 56 neighborhood residents — including numerous professors — opposing the development of a single-room occupancy low-income housing unit across the street from Pratt Field. The planned project, located at 132 Northampton Rd., underwent public comment in July before the Town Council voted to fund it.

Reaction to The Student’s report about the professors’ signatures was swift, with FLI student organizations mobilizing and The Amherst Muck-Rake, a satirical online publication, posting about the letter. Four days after the article’s publication, the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) sent an email to the student body distancing itself from the professors’ position.

Martin entered the fray on Nov. 21, when a group of students received an email from Casey Jo Dufresne, the program director of the Meiklejohn Fellows program, which offers workshops, internship funding and other resources for FLI students.

In the letter, Martin expressed the college’s support for the housing project and “what the project seeks to accomplish.” She wrote that the college has been in communication with the executive director and project manager of the Valley Community Development Corporation (Valley CDC) — the developer of the housing project — and that the college had compiled information about the project to send to neighbors who contacted the college with their concerns.

“I understand why many members of our community have found some of the now public comments in resistance to the project to be surprising and upsetting and I feel badly that some of the comments that emerged in town discussions have had that impact,” Martin wrote.

Dufresne’s addendum to Martin’s letter stated that Martin had reached out to her with the message and encouraged students to contact Dufresne if they needed support.

Isiaha Price ’21, an AAS senator who was one of the first to publicly speak out against the joint letter, said he didn’t know Martin’s email had been sent only to students who identify as FLI until he talked to other students and realized they hadn’t received the email.

“When I was just reading it myself, I was like, ‘I’m happy,’” Price said. “It was an important sentiment: just because you have some head administrators and powerful faculty on this petition doesn’t mean it’s the official stance of the school. That was important for me; I liked hearing that.”

The nature of the letter’s delivery, however, made Price feel “a little bit weird.” The FLI community may be the group most affected by the professors’ opposition, but “we’re also the group that already knows this should be supported,” he said. He’d hoped for a community-wide email affirming support for low-income students and low-income people in the town of Amherst.

Helen Knott ’23, who identifies as FLI, said Martin’s email was both appreciated and “a little bit distancing” because of its delivery through Dufresne. The letter also seemed like a “political move,” Knott said.

“She made it sound like the institution believed in the affordable housing project and that these professors and staff were just lone wolves doing their own thing, basically throwing them under the bus,” Knott said. “And while I don’t particularly have a problem with that, … I don’t know how disingenuous it might be.”

When admitted to the college, Knott was “100 percent sold” on the idea that she deserved her place and that low-income students like her were welcome and wanted. With this new academic degree, she’d make her way in the world — it would be her chance at a new life, she thought. “Getting hit with the ‘you were chosen because of optics’ — that hurts,” Knott said, referring to the professors’ letters. Now, she doesn’t know how much faith to put into Martin’s message.

In a separate interview with The Student, Martin said she reached out to Dufresne and Tenzin Kunor, director of the Center for Diversity and Student Leadership, after she heard FLI students were offended by some of the commentary. She was concerned for the students who felt directly implicated but didn’t have an email list, so she asked Dufresne and Kunor to pass along her message. The college, according to Martin, has been holding informational meetings with Valley CDC since May.

Eliza Brewer ’21, president of Questbridge, an organization for FLI students, said she was glad Martin reached out. “It’s more than I expected from her, but I do wish it had been sent to the entire community,” Brewer said. “By sending it out only to FLI students, she’s sort of making this into a FLI students issue. That’s not the conversation.This is very much a confirmation of what we already know, which is that a lot of the staff and faculty here are quite classist and just don’t understand FLI issues. If they’re going to be teaching us, they need to understand that these people that they’re talking about are their students. And that’s one discussion that for sure needs to be had, but not the big discussion I think that needs to be found or the only discussion needs to be had.”

The bigger discussion that needs to be had, she said, is that Amherst is “failing its most vulnerable population.”

“As people of privilege, I think it is our responsibility to have those conversations and not just live in our own little bubble of Amherst students,” she said. “And I think by sending that email to FLI students only, [Martin] restricts the conversation only to: ‘Oh, this is a FLI student issue,’ which it’s not. Our greater community is suffering. It’s not receiving the sort of aid it needs and it’s continuously coming up against these obstacles — elitism and classism and just like failures of justice in so many senses.”

After hearing from students at a senate meeting, the AAS sent a second email to the student body on Nov. 20, writing that “while the AAS acknowledges these professors’ fundamental right to express themselves and their opinions, we believe that many of their comments and those comments’ implications are not only problematic and contrary to Amherst College’s mission, but also deeply harmful to many members of our community.”

Affirming Valley CDC’s work, the AAS addressed low-income students, emphasizing that the AAS hears their concerns, recognizes the challenges they face at Amherst and will “do everything in our power to advocate” for them. The letter ended with a request that the faculty who wrote in opposition consider the impact of their words.

“We ask that you think about the power imbalance in your classrooms, and how low-income students must feel to know that their professors have insinuated that people like them don’t belong in this neighborhood,” the email stated.

A Sense of Misunderstanding Across the student body, one of the most surprising signatories of the joint letter was Dean of New Students Rick Lopez, who is also the chair of Latinx and Latin American Studies (LLAS).

Lopez was one of Knott’s first friendly faces at Amherst. During Summer Bridge, a three-week program dedicated to helping first-year FLI students navigate the college, Lopez was one of the people who “sold me on the idea that I deserve to be here, I am valued as a person, my background and identities are valued.”

Now, maybe Lopez shouldn’t be the one talking to first-year students about being first-gen low-income, Knott said. “I don’t mind if he’s still tenured or if he still has a position, [as long as] he moves on to somewhere else so he doesn’t have as much power,” she added. “If I need any sort of help, that oftentimes can be like, ‘I’m low on money and I need help getting some money from financial aid. Could you help me with this?’ And for accommodations: ‘Because I’m poor, I didn’t have this, so I’ll need it.’” Now that her trust in Lopez has been broken, she said she is unsure she can rely on him.

On Nov. 20, LLAS majors received an email from Lopez in which he referenced his experience growing up poor in a “minority and low-income neighborhood.”

“I have seen, from close up, low-income housing models that work well for the people who live in them, and models that do not work as well,” he wrote. “In the conversations regarding the development on Northampton Road, I sought an open conversation in the planning phase, but when it became clear that the developer was not open to a conversation about the details of the model they were using, and given some of my concerns, I agreed to sign the letter asking the Town Council not to approve the specific proposal.”

Despite his opposition to the project, he wrote, he became “committed to the success of the project” after the Town Council approved its development. He took issue with his neighbors’ choice to “use certain statistics” in the joint letter but noted that “the letter sought to address the input of more than 50 individuals, so it falls short for any of us.”

At the time that the letter was being written and signed, he added, he was in El Paso, Texas trying to help his sister, who is disabled, out of her current lease so she could move near their parents. “I did not have the time or energy in that context to get involved in the details of the letter,” Lopez wrote. “I figured that the inclusion of the text stating that the signers were not uniform in our views and that our main goal was to get the project right were sufficient to signal heterogeneity in perspective.”

In a separate interview with The Student, Lopez referred to a low-income housing complex in his neighborhood during his childhood that through its design isolated its residents and led to violence and drug dealing. Other people in his neighborhood who also lived in low-income housing didn’t experience the same kind of unhappiness, he said. After many years, the complex was declared a disaster. When it was rebuilt about a decade ago, its residents no longer felt unsafe or unsupported.

Lopez pointed to this example as the reason he signed the joint letter, noting that his opposition was to the proposal and not the creation of the unit itself. The housing unit on Northampton Road will offer single-room occupancy residencies, which Lopez said will be a “tower of isolation.”

“What people were wondering was why not make it mixed [housing]? Why not make it have on-site support?” Lopez said, adding that he was invested in incorporating permeability and community-building into the conceptualization of the project. “There were no channels for people to feel integrated into the neighborhood … And to not offer robust support to help residents succeed requires a conversation.” He did not agree with the joint letter’s use of the call data, however, which cited calls to the police at Valley CDC’s Northampton low-income housing sites evidence the Amherst project would be poorly managed.

The residents wanted to vote down the proposal of that version of the model, Lopez said, not the project itself. After the town voted to fund it, “everyone moved on and committed to making it a success.”

The ongoing backlash from the college community is not his concern, however.

“The fallout of this misunderstanding — I wouldn’t want this to make the students I’m committed to serving hesitate to reach out for support,” he said. He has been reaching out to individual students to meet and talk in person about the controversy.

Moving Forward After the The Student’s initial article was published, Brewer contacted Lopez and engaged in conversation about his signature on the letter. They reached a mutual understanding, she said.

“I still don’t really agree with his methods, … but the one thing that we both agreed on very strongly was that, especially in a low-income community, it can be hard for students to find champions,” Brewer said. “We’re very good at self-advocacy, and so when someone says they’re going to be an advocate for us, we take that very seriously and we keep them accountable. Our fear was that this would be seen as a betrayal for a lot of students, so they wouldn’t seek out resources in the future. And that’s something that neither of us wanted.”

Whether or not FLI students seek out Lopez doesn’t matter to him or Brewer, she said, “just that they do seek someone out.” She noted that Lopez has received numerous emails from people calling him a racist and classist, but she disagrees, saying instead that he made a decision with “poor judgment.”

“I think that he should ask for grace, … but I don’t believe that he is deserving of all the hate that’s coming his way,” Brewer said.

She is planning a collaboration with FLI students at UMass Amherst to find ways to support low-income people in the Amherst area.

Professor of History Frank Couvares, one of the faculty members who submitted a letter in support of the project in July, defended his colleagues in an interview with The Student, emphasizing that people can have “honest disagreements about this” and that he didn’t think the opposing professors have been “threatening or insensitive to low-income students.”

Nobody should be demonized, he said, especially when the dialogue was “well within ordinary discourse, occasionally elevated in emotion.” Couvares himself maintained his continued support for the project and noted that “we need to see this project built.” Chair of Classics Rebecca Sinos, who submitted a letter to the Town Council asking if it’s “fair to expect Amherst College groundsmen to deal with needles on the Amherst fields,” declined to comment for the article. Price, however, said she needs to be held accountable for her words.

“When your opinions are attacking someone, that deserves to be talked about,” he said. “I feel like it fell on low-income students to have to defend ourselves when we shouldn’t have had to defend this sort of rhetoric, because it should have been instantaneous from the college and from other people: you get to have opinions on topics but you don’t get to have opinions against people’s existence.”

Growing up, Knott had long felt that her middle and high school administrators didn’t care about her as a person who was poor and had home life issues. “You don’t really enjoy it but you get used to it,” Knott said. “But it hurts just a little more that I have to get used to it now that I’m here because I really did hope that things would be a lot better on this campus. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll eat because I know there’s always going to be food for me, or whether or not the lights will stay on or whether or not I go homeless.”

It’s a bit saddening, she said, to realize she will still have to play the “political game” of making sure she makes a big enough fuss to get her problems solved, but not enough that she has to deal with potential ramifications. “It’s a systematic problem,” she said with a sigh.