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Displaced Amherst residents to begin housing search, though challenges ahead

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

by SCOTT MERZBACH, Staff Writer, Daily Hampshire Gazette

From left, Marc Abely, Latigra Heckestall with her son Angel Heckstall, in back, Melissa Stratton and her son Nick Stratton,and Ariq Welch with his mother Tracylee Boutilier, stand in front of their home at Echo Village. They have been told by new owners that rents will increase this month, forcing them out.CAROL LOLLIS
From left, Marc Abely, Latigra Heckestall with her son Angel Heckstall, in back, Melissa Stratton and her son Nick Stratton,and Ariq Welch with his mother Tracylee Boutilier, stand in front of their home at Echo Village. They have been told by new owners that rents will increase this month, forcing them out. CAROL LOLLIS

AMHERST — Low-income residents losing their homes at Echo Village Apartments need to begin looking for housing as advocates seek to extend their stay where they are.

That was the advice from representatives of local and regional agencies that support housing initiatives, who packed a meeting room Tuesday afternoon at the Gatehouse Road complex to provide assistance to the 24 tenants being displaced, including 19 who get vouchers under the federal Section 8 program. They noted that with few affordable rental properties available, and competition from college students looking to live off campus, finding new homes in Amherst will be hard.

The tenants are being forced out of the complex at 30 Gatehouse Road following the $3 million sale of the property by Gatehouse Road Realty LLC, managed by Jerald Gates, to Echo Gatehouse Partners LLC, part of the Eagle Crest Property Management company. Eagle Crest is expected to raise rents 20 to 40 percent.

The company sent most of the tenants letters earlier in February informing them that they would have to leave March 31.

Debbie Turgeon, director of housing programs for the Amherst Housing Authority, said preliminary discussions with Eagle Crest have focused on ensuring the tenants can remain in their homes through the end of the school year.

"Our concern is if they continue forward, the market in Amherst won’t free up until the college students leave," Turgeon said.

But it will be up to the individual tenants to find new apartments that meet the rent standards allowed by Section 8, Turgeon said. Calculated as 120 percent of the fair market rates, these payment standards in Amherst are currently $748 for studio apartments, $897 for one-bedroom units, $1,122 for two-bedrooms, $1,400 for three-bedrooms and $1,596 for four-bedrooms.

Rents at Echo Village are expected to rise well beyond that, Turgeon said.

Amherst Housing Authority Executive Director Denise Leduc said Eagle Crest doesn’t appear likely to keep rents low.

"They’re not showing flexibility on that at this point," Leduc said.

Tight rental picture

Jennifer Dieringer, managing attorney for Community Legal Aid in Northampton, said Amherst is a difficult community in which to find affordable housing.

"The larger issue of student housing is what is driving the market here," Dieringer said.

That is confirmed in a draft Housing Production Study, a document prepared for the town that is expected to help guide future housing developments. The October draft plan was put together by consultant Karen Sunnarborg of Jamaica Plain, with assistance from Abacus Architects & Planners of Allston.

"The large numbers of students who live off campus are in direct competition with other residents for existing units, increasing demand and thus driving up costs," the report reads.

The vacancy rate in 2010 was just 3.5 percent, according to the report, with the average one-bedroom unit renting for $750, two-bedrooms for $1,200, three-bedrooms for $1,500 and four-bedrooms for $2,000.

Even if the Echo Village tenants find suitable arrangements, they still may have to pay first and last months’ rents and a security deposit upfront.

Dieringer said grant money may be available to assist people at risk of homelessness.

"We can help you all connect up to these folks when you’re ready to move," Dieringer said.

Dieringer reminded the residents they don’t have to become homeless.

"You do not have to leave March 31," Dieringer said. "The landlord can’t physically evict you from your residence."

Some tenants said they are most worried that even if they are able to find a new place to live, those homes may not be in Amherst, but in Holyoke, Springfield or Chicopee, instead.

Tracylee Boutilier, who has two teenage sons, said it will be hard to find another three-bedroom residence in town.

Santa Barbara Pabon said she grew up in North Amherst at Puffton Village, attended the former Mark’s Meadow School and now fears being driven out of the community she has known.

"We’re being displaced from a place where we were raised and where we’re from," Pabon said. "To be asked to leave my hometown is just baffling to me. We need to nip this in the bud."

Meris Bergquist, executive director of the Massachusetts Fair Housing Center in Holyoke, suggested that people should put pressure on the town to ensure there is adequate housing. Bergquist said the purpose of mobile Section 8 vouchers was to allow low-income families to be integrated into neighborhoods.

Facing the issue

Even if the Echo Village tenants find housing, the issue of where low-income people can live in Amherst is not going away.

The displacement of the residents comes as the town’s Housing and Sheltering Committee prepares a public presentation on the Housing Production Study. It is set for March 5 at 7 p.m. in the fifth-floor lounge at Ann Whalen Apartments.

While 5,001 rental units were available in 2010, according to the report, that is just 54 percent of the housing market, compared to 60 percent in 1980. The median rent has also risen 61 percent, from $687 in 2000 to $1,108 in 2010.

Nathaniel Malloy, community development planner for the town, said there are no immediate answers to increasing the supply of affordable housing. He said the town can’t build affordable housing, but can encourage its development through zoning changes that would increase the supply.

The problem, he said, is that zoning changes aimed at more so-called infill development — denser development in town centers —have failed at Town Meeting out of concern that these units would become overrun with students.

Malloy said 60 percent of University of Massachusetts students live on campus, with the remainder housed in Amherst neighborhoods.

The town has turned to the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods group that seeks to get a grasp on the problems caused by rentals. It is also hoping the Olympia Oaks, a 42-unit affordable complex off East Pleasant Street by HAP Housing Inc., is ready for families by fall 2014. ▪

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