This spring, the town of Amherst is set to break ground on a new affordable housing project called East Gables at 132 Northampton Road. The nearly six-million dollar project has elicited both support and concern from members of the college and town community.
Developed by Valley Community Development Corporation (Valley CDC) — a Northampton-based nonprofit that works to provide affordable housing in the Pioneer Valley — the East Gables project is one of several housing projects currently underway that respond to the local need for small, affordable rental units. The project was initially proposed in 2019, and was approved in November 2020 by the Amherst Zoning Board of Appeals. However, construction was ultimately delayed to spring of this year due to Covid-related slowdowns.
According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, East Gables will consist of one building equipped with 28 fully-accessible studio apartments of approximately 240 square feet. Each apartment will be furnished with kitchenettes and bathrooms, in addition to a common room, a laundry room, and an office for onsite supportive services. The building will place a focus on energy efficiency, sporting rooftop solar panels which allow it to be powered without the use of fossil fuels.
Apartment residents will be selected through a lottery system, with residents who make between 30 and 80 percent of the median income being eligible to participate. In addition, several apartments will be specifically set aside for individuals who have recently been homeless, and for clients of the Department of Mental Health, a state resource providing support for residents’ mental health needs.
The town of Amherst has been experiencing a housing shortage for many years, due in large part to the many students in need of off-campus housing in the area. According to the Amherst Indy, UMass Amherst, which in 2021 had a total student enrollment of over 28,000 students, has only about 14,000 on-campus housing units. As a result, many students are required to find housing in the town of Amherst and surrounding areas, resulting in greater demand and higher prices.
Housing issues have only been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. A report released this year by the UMass Donahue Institute found that due to a “mismatch between available income and housing prices,” more than half of all renters located in the Pioneer Valley are housing “cost burdened,” meaning that they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing alone.
The East Gables project has received support from members of the college and town community.
Professor of English and American Studies Karen Sanchez-Eppler, a resident of the town of Amherst, told The Student that “Amherst has long had a severe shortage of affordable housing, a situation that has significantly worsened over the pandemic with the steep rise in local housing costs. A broader range of available housing, including true low-income housing, will make Amherst a better place to live for everyone.”
Sophia Harrison ’22, a student caseworker with Amherst Community Connections (ACC), expressed the group’s support in a statement to The Student, writing: “ACC believes that the East Gables Housing Project is a step in a positive direction. We believe any opportunity to build more affordable housing in the Pioneer Valley is a positive asset for our community. … This is just the beginning.”
Isabel Wood ’22, who also works at ACC, expressed a similar sentiment, telling The Student that the “East Gables Housing Project is a huge accomplishment for the Town of Amherst.”
Public comments made to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals over the development of the project between 2019 and 2020 were similarly supportive.
One town resident stated that the project was a “well-designed response to a well-documented need in this area.” Another noted that “few projects in recent memory will so dramatically improve the lives of our most vulnerable citizens than the studio apartment project.”
One anonymous student expressed that Amherst “cannot welcome students of all income levels from around the country and world into its community … while simultaneously neglecting to support the low-income families already living in [the town].”
However, responses to the project were not all positive.
Some residents took issue with the project’s location and size. One resident, whose parents live adjacent to the project site, described the project as the building of a “monstrosity in a small neighborhood, the majority of which is owner occupied, single-family homes … [and] part of the historical district of Amherst. It’s disheartening to know that an aging couple who have invested their life and their assets into the improvement of this neighborhood and their home can quickly get their home altered so greatly by the erection of a 28 unit apartment complex.”
Still others, including Professor and Chair of French Laure Katsaros, worried that the project would not provide sufficient support systems for residents. “[I]n the current project, a manager would be present on site 20 hours a week only; no medical, social, or psychological support would be provided ... I believe providing more consistent on-site support for residents would be a good way to move forward,” she wrote in a letter to the council.
Dean of New Students Rick Lopez cited his concerns over the specific model of affordable housing that the plan proposed as his reason for opposing the project at the time.
A letter written to the Town Council and signed by 56 area residents, including several Amherst College professors, expressed concern with the project’s close proximity to Pratt Field. The letter conveyed the signees’ belief that the project’s construction near the Field, which is currently open to the public when not in use by the college, would “most likely result in the closing of this recreational area to public access.”
Many students were upset that Amherst faculty members would cosign the letter, with the Association of Amherst Students (AAS) releasing a response to this criticism and expressing their support of the project in November 2019, stating, “we support [the] work to expand affordable housing in Amherst, so that all of our neighbors can have a safe place to live. We are prepared to do whatever we can to ensure that the development is successful and that the incoming residents have a smooth transition into their new homes.”
Three years later, despite the criticism and escalating construction costs, construction on East Gables has begun, and is expected to be completed in summer of 2023. Yet, the need for affordable housing is expected to continue far past the project’s completion. As Laura Baker, Valley CDC’s real estate development director, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “There just isn’t enough affordable housing.”