Some Town Council candidates and others have made statements that seem to demonize college students, asserting that the two new buildings downtown are “dorms.”
This is a revealing misstatement. Dormitories are generally defined as housing that is owned by educational institutions and restricted to students. These two buildings are privately owned and include many non-students, so it’s more accurate to call them “apartment buildings.”
It is revealing because the word “dorms” functions as a slur against a class of people who are regarded as fundamentally different from you and me. It creates a stereotype about a disfavored group.
Many people in Amherst resent that for nine months a year, there’s more vehicle traffic in the northern half of town. And yet a large part of our economic stability is rooted in the presence of college students. This resentment reminds me of year-round Cape Cod residents bad-mouthing summer tourists.
And many people don’t like having student neighbors. No one likes late-night noise, and Amherst does have a problem with investors buying houses and renting them to students, limiting the supply of homes available to families. But “They’re not like us. Why can’t they all live on campus?” sounds too much like a segregationist tract from the 1950s.
College students are part of the fabric of our community. UMass and the two colleges provide employment for hundreds of Amherst residents, jobs that are not at factories that might close down or lay off workers. They also provide the kinds of cultural amenities (movies, concerts, lectures, etc.) that you typically see only in cities.
And they make Amherst, like other college towns, a place that welcomes progressive politics. Did you know that only 8.6 percent of Amherst voters supported Donald Trump in 2016? Cambridge, among all 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, was the only one with a lower percentage.
One of the costs of hosting three campuses is that we sometimes have to put up with disturbances caused by young people who are away from home for the first time and haven’t learned how to live in a neighborhood or moderate their alcohol intake. But these disturbances have declined by 20 to 25 percent, according to Police Chief Scott Livingstone.
We tend to focus on those few students who are unruly and ignore the overwhelming majority who are not. When I worked at the newspaper and Stephanie O’Keeffe said that highlighting student disturbances in the press created an unrealistic impression, I disagreed with her. Now, I think she was right.
To those who say that UMass students should live on campus, this state university provides housing for a greater percentage of its students than most do.
Oh, and those two downtown buildings? They are paying $568,000 this year in tax revenue, money that doesn’t have to be raised from overtaxed permanent residents. In fact, that extra revenue saved us from budget cuts and/or an override this year.
If you don’t want students living in residential neighborhoods, I would think you would favor downtown buildings where a majority of the tenants are students. Chief Livingstone reports that noise complaints about Kendrick Place have been virtually nil.
I think it would be appropriate to have a student on the new Town Council, to represent this important constituency in Amherst. And when I envision the ideal student councilor, I think of John Page, who is running in District 3 (Precincts 4 and 10). He’s smart and conscientious, and has deep roots in the Amherst area. When Ellen Story was first elected state representative, one of the candidates she defeated was Page’s grandfather.
Should the state provide Amherst with more money to compensate us for the costs of hosting college students, many of whom live in housing that’s exempt from property taxes? Sure. Should we pursue public/private partnerships to build taxable student housing on state-owned land? Definitely. But the presence of students in Amherst has a lot more positives than negatives. I think we should treat them as our neighbors.
I’ll give the last word to Alisa Brewer, whose colorful comment at a candidates forum has been condensed for clarity: “I love students, even when they’re peeing in my yard…because Amherst is all about education…I think it’s fine for them to live downtown and in fact this will help educate them on the future of having fewer cars, using public transportation to get around, being practical at the formative stage of their development.”