Housing: The Big Picture

Housing costs have risen far more quickly than incomes in most of the country. Nationally, the National Low Income Housing Coalition has found there is a shortage of 7 million homes that are affordable and available to the lowest-income renters. In Massachusetts, there are only 46 homes available for each 100 families that need them. Families are “cost burdened” – they pay too much of their income for keeping a roof over their heads.

This situation has come about largely because of a decline in federal contributions to construction of affordable housing. Fifty years ago, the federal budget for housing assistance programs was nearly three times more than it is today.

Amherst is not an exception. Many people who work or study in Amherst cannot afford to live in town or even nearby. And, there are many homeless people on our streets.

During the winter of 2018, Craig’s Doors served more than 170 homeless people. When not at this shelter, they sleep on the streets, in ATMs, in the parking garage, or in tents behind the Big Y supermarket and other buildings.

It is essential to address the housing needs of people who are currently homeless or in danger of becoming homeless. The Amherst Municipal Housing Trust has a goal of developing 240 units of affordable housing in the next five years. The Town hosted a forum on homelessness in 2016 that identified studio apartments with supportive services as a primary way to address the problem.

The specific factors in our local version of the nationwide housing shortage include a shortage of developable land, zoning regulations, and a mismatch between the existing housing stock and the needs of residents and would-be residents.

For example, according to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, between 1970 and 2017, the population in Amherst increased from around 25,000 to over 40,000, but very little housing was built during that time. In the 1970s, 2,126 units were constructed, but then the number of new units went into a decline: 1,117 in the 1980s, 611 in the 1990s, and only 287 between 2000 and 2010.

A lot (but not all) of the population increase was due to an increase of about 7,000 in student enrollment at the University of Massachusetts, while residential capacity there grew by less than 3,000. As a result, rents, which had long been high in Amherst, became even higher.  In 2017, the median gross rent in Amherst was $1,275 a month.

According to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership’s Center for Housing Data, 40 percent of renter households in Amherst pay between $1,000 and $1,499 per month for housing:

Amherst Monthly Rental Costs

As a result, 57% of renter households in town are “cost burdened” (spending 30% or more of their income on housing) or “severely cost burdened” (spending 50% or more on housing). Strikingly, there are also homeowners who are cost burdened:

Amherst Housing Cost Burden

While it would certainly help if the university housed more of its students, it can’t house them all, and many non-students are struggling as well.

What’s being done

In addition to the proposal to build affordable housing at the East Street School site, there are other affordable housing options being pursued. One of these will be coming before the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC) and the Zoning Board of Appeals in the near future.

A Forum on Homelessness held in July, 2016, made the need for housing for homeless people very clear. The seasonal homeless shelter served more than 175 individuals the previous winter. In September 2017 the town gave a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) planning grant to the Valley Community Development Corporation (“Valley”) to begin developing a facility for supported housing with small studio apartments somewhere in Amherst.

Valley has been working on that proposal. They have a site on Northampton Road, near the Amherst College playing fields. That site is a walkable distance from both the center of town (with services such as the Musante Commnity health Center, Craig’s Doors Resource Center, and Amherst Community Connections). The stores on University Drive are not far off, and the site is on a major transportation route.

Valley is proposing a project to serve about 28 adults:

  • 10 units for homeless people who make no more than 30% of the Area Median Income (AMI) – which will be subsidized
  • 8 units for people who earn up to 50% AMI – who will pay their own rent
  • 8 units for 80% AMI – who will pay their own rent
  • 2 units for 30% AMI clients of the Department of Mental Health (DMH)

Units will be about 240 square feet each, with a kitchenette and bathroom. The building will include a common area and an office for supportive personnel. The tenants will be extremely low-income single adults, including people who have been homeless, retirees, people with disabilities, and clients of the Department of Mental Health. Currently there is no comparable housing in Amherst.

This kind of housing cannot be built or maintained without significant subsidies. The Housing Trust requested $500,000 in funding from the Community Preservation Act account (CPA); the CPA approved that request in late April. The trust is also requesting $200,000 from the CDBG.

The Housing Trust is also requesting other funds from the CPA to increase affordable housing in Amherst. Those requests include funds to continue having a consultant to support affordable housing, to subsidize mortgages for first-time home buyers, to have a “supportive housing program” for people who need services in addition to housing, and to provide a rental subsidy program.

While public meetings have demonstrated support in general for affordable housing, finding places and funding for units are both very challenging. It will be difficult to meet the goal of 240 units in five years even under the best of circumstances.

Dangers ahead

The national circumstances are likely to get worse, not better. President Trump has proposed a budget for next fiscal year that would eliminate the Community Block Grant program and spending on the national Housing Trust Fund, impose work requirements for housing aid and triple rents, and generally reduce funds by 16.4 percent. Instead, they want to increase funding for a controversial privatization plan for public housing (the Rental Assistance Demonstration program).  Amherst, like other communities, depends on funding from these programs. While Trump’s budget is unlikely to pass as proposed, it seems unlikely that a divided Congress will increase funding for these proposals in the next year or two. Advocates for affordable housing will need to work at both the local and federal levels.

Elisa Campbell