More Housing Key to Economic Health

Columnist Sarah la Cour: More housing key to economic health

Imagine more housing in downtown Amherst. Lots of it. True vibrancy in Amherst’s core is dependent on more housing.

The downtown and village centers were specifically identified years ago by the community as where our residential growth should be occurring. With significant residential density comes the ability to maintain a strong commercial sector and the activity necessary for a vital 24/7 economy.

With several new buildings coming online in recent years, we have seen a significant increase in housing units in downtown, but we aren’t there yet. Our downtown shouldn’t be so quiet at 9 p.m. It should be dynamic and entertaining. More housing is a good start.

Amherst faces some interesting housing dynamics by hosting the commonwealth’s flagship campus and two private colleges. Tensions between students and neighborhoods, particularly at the edges of downtown, have been well documented.

However, housing is a critical piece of the conversation that we have to address. In 2014, the Town Gown Steering Committee was formed with the charge to “recommend the strategies, interventions, and processes for UMass and Amherst to collaborate and create a stable balance in housing and economic growth that allows both the university and town to prosper.”

This was a pivotal moment for our community and the subsequent report issued by U3 Advisors contains several important bits of data that we should be paying more attention to. These include the fact that housing “supply remains flat but prices have ballooned,” as well as demographic data that indicates that we are losing the population that represents the young workforce and new families (ages 25 to 44). This reinforces to me that building more housing is critical for our long-term viability.

Regarding students, there are obviously two sides to the student-housing equation. The university can house them on campus or they can live off-campus scattered within the community.

But there could be a middle ground. What if there was a relationship between the two entities that could build housing in downtown? There the students could have access to the commercial core that the town center offers while providing benefits to the town through increased economic activity and tax base.

Or what if we had lots of diverse housing opportunities where multiple generations could live together? Students would still be interspersed within the community but in locations that are desirable to both them and their neighbors.

It all comes back to building more housing of all types. The only way to keep our young workforce and families is to provide places where they want (and can afford) to live.

Townwide, we appropriately have been protecting our farmland and natural resources following smart-growth standards. Now we must focus on new residential density in our downtown and village centers. By adding units downtown (thus increasing townwide capacity overall), we are freeing up existing housing in other areas that can provide those in the early years of a career or family with the home they require.

All of this creates more potential for an active social and cultural community that boosts our downtown economy. The live/work environment is the trend and that’s inviting to the post-college, family demographic. We already have AmherstWorks to help create that vibe. Residential density also helps to create that vibe.

To some the word “density” is problematic, but that’s where we need to be in downtown with dense residential development. More people living in the town center creates atmosphere and that atmosphere ultimately attracts new businesses and economic opportunities.

Yes, some consider Amherst a small town and we have definitely maintained our rural, agrarian heritage.

The flip side is to grow people in our urban core. This town needs housing units and downtown is the perfect place for them to grow — students, families, retirees, anyone and everyone.

Sarah la Cour, of Amherst, is executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.