Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Amherst Homeowners: Mad as Hell!

This is the first house we owned, in Palo Alto, California.

It was tiny. 900 square feet and shaped like a bowling alley.

Taking a virtual walk down the street with Google Street View, I see that the house two doors down is much, much bigger than it used to be.

Which doesn't surprise me; while we were living there several little houses in the neighborhood were torn down and replaced by big, multi-million-dollar properties. Heck, according to zillow.com, that little 900 square foot house is worth just a little less than a million dollars today.

I wonder if Amherst will be like that in 20 years.

Today, the hot-button issue in Amherst isn't cute little cottages getting torn down and being replaced by McMansions, it is big old single-family houses getting turned into rentals for college students. Homeowners in neighborhoods near UMass are upset that their quiet family-friendly neighborhoods are slowly turning into absentee landlord slums.

Part of me wants to just say "I told you so." This is what you get when you do stupid stuff like refuse to allow high-density student rental housing to be built anywhere near anybody. Amherst Town Meeting members have been pretending that the students don't exist and that there is no shortage of rental housing in town for over 40 years.

Fall Town Meeting will debate several zoning articles that are meant to stop single-family homes from becoming multi-person rentals. I think they would be effective-- if a property management company needs to get a Special Permit to turn a single-family home into a multi-person rental then they won't bother buying any more single-family homes.

I don't know where the students would go; apartment complexes in Hadley or Sunderland or even further away, I suppose. Hopefully they'll be riding buses or driving non-polluting self-driving electric cars so we won't see more pollution or traffic accidents. And hopefully they'll stop and do a bit of shopping or eating once in a while, so fewer people living near downtown doesn't mean a less vibrant Town Center.

In the very short-term, I'd expect housing prices to go down a little bit, since property management companies won't be competing for houses any more. Less demand means lower prices.

But if I'm right, and if stricter zoning and rental regulations are effective in driving students out of residential neighborhoods, I think prices for properties near downtown and UMass will eventually rise, because it will make those neighborhoods a more pleasant place to live.

That neighborhood in Palo Alto is right next to Stanford University, and it was a great place to live, if you could afford it. Amherst is not the same, of course-- the main reason that little house is now worth a million dollars is because Google and Facebook and a gazillion other successful high-tech companies are nearby.

But I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Town Meeting debating regulations to limit an epidemic of "tear-down sales" 20 years from now.

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