College students: bane or boon?

Nick Grabbe

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.”

Comments 10

  1. Well said. Our town’s unequivocal message to students should be this: You are welcome, and we are glad you’re here.

    Some voters live here most of the year, and others live here year-round, and we all have the same reasonable expectations and responsibilities toward one another, e.g. respect and consideration.

  2. I have been struck by how often I am asked by various individuals and/or on assorted questionnaires how I as a potential Councilor can help reach “marginalized” or “underrepresented” groups in Amherst. And maybe it’s just me but I don’t get the feeling they are talking about students. Yet the largest and least represented group in our town are college students. Apparently they don’t count. Maybe in this election they will. I second Nick’s endorsement of John Page — he would be an excellent addition to the Council and give the “underrepresented” 60% of our population an actual voice in town affairs.

  3. Is there anyone living in Amherst before the colleges and university were founded? I didn’t think so, which means the current residents all know they were moving to or choosing to remain in a college town. We have unique problems, sure, but also unique benefits. And those buildings are certainly not dorms, as you’ve so well defined them, Nick. I looked at apartments downtown for my mother before she sadly passed away. I saw several older people on my tour.

  4. If dorms are are only buildings on campus, then what are the buildings on Olympia Way? This is supposedly the only place in town zoned for private dorms. So those are dorms. Buildings just like it are also downtown (and being heavily marketed to students). A few “non-students” live there, so they are “apartment buildings.” The new plan to build more dorms on campus aims to build them in a style that students prefer, which is more like apartment buildings (according to a UMass spokesperson, in a recent article). There is clearly an overlap that defies a clean definition.

    What I have heard, and what I have also said, is not a demonization of students. If you’d like to be more accurate in defining “dorm” let’s also be careful to define “demonization” (to portray as wicked and threatening). My point, like many others, is that to create balance and fairness in Amherst, we need to protect against the pricing bubble, where families cannot outbid the buying power of 4 unrelated tenants, backed by their families. I consciously moved my young family to a college town, and enjoy all the benefits of that. My suggestion to enforce over-occupancy limits is to protect the balance of families and students in our town. My suggestion that we should be building condos, and apartments that are designed for families are more likely to attract families. Again, to sustain a balance.

    And as you (Nick) are, ironically, demonizing people that have this view, let me reveal that in my youth, I was a student. I enjoyed living in neighborhoods with families. I tutored their children, was invited to dinner at their houses, was glad to live in the “real world” instead of in a cinderblock room on campus. I inhaled this aspect of college, and it is among my most positive memories of that era.

    And I love interacting with college students. I regularly guest lecture at UMass and other area universities. I have several colleagues that are students and recent graduates. I often have UMass students, as my guests, at events I put on at the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley, a non-profit I’ve run since 1994. I’ve coached, pro-bono, many college students about ideas for businesses they dream of running. So I’d like you to consider that a person can be pro-student and also pro balanced neighborhoods, and anti housing bubble.

    The argument that UMass houses a greater percentage of its students than other state universities is flawed. Most state universities are in cities, not towns the size of Amherst (even if our new official name is “The City Known as the Town of Amherst”). I’d like to know how we stack up with other towns and cities that host state universities, with the percentage of university employees that can afford to live in that town. In Amherst, we subsidize the cost of off campus student housing by looking the other way, re: over-occupancy. We allow the bubble pricing to exclude the families of those employees. When I worked at UMass for 22 years, I knew many employees that commuted from faraway towns, because that’s where their budget allowed them to live. Again, balance. And planning.

    Also, I am familiar enough with how aspiring candidates think to realize that students often don’t vote, or attend “listening sessions” held by the town, so they don’t spend money on mailing to students, keeping them informed and involved. I agree that the effort to reach to the under-heard should certainly involve students. Students not voting could contribute to our nation’s slide into despotic rule. It is discouraging to attend a candidates night and see an ocean of grey hair, or no hair.

    We do receive tax revenue from the new “apartments that function as dorms” (a compromise definition, accepted by a couple of people on our planning board; and by Nick Grabbe, in a prior exchange). We would also receive taxes from owner occupied condos downtown. Our precious master plan supports infill and densification, albeit without ample definitions of how those translate into real life. The master plan aims for a balanced community, not one with a huge thumb on the scale, where development happens in a way so disconnected from the future Amherst we hope to become.

    I would appreciate a more nuanced, less holier tone in this conversation. I hope the Town Council will be able to lead our citizenry to thoughtful solutions to real problems. This happens when reasonable people can disagree. First we need to agree to face the realities of our town, without being labeled demons who demonize. I think you (Nick) know it’s not that simple, and you simplifying it like that is helping nobody.

    1. A dormitory is residence hall for people with a common occupation or interest. Company dormitories are common in many parts of the world.

      In Amherst, a working definition of dormitory is “a residence hall for the exclusive use of students”. In 10 years, the Planning Board has reviewed exactly 2–one developed by Amherst College on Lincoln, and one developed by Archipelago on Olympia Drive. The buildings on East Pleasant are not dormitories.

      Calling them “dormitories” is a political strategy (like calling the elementary schools a “mega school”). Unfortunately, that strategy may also be self-fulfilling.

      Like Ira, I am in favor of strategies to create multi-generational communities in village centers, and am concerned about the possibilty of creating inadvertent mono-cultures.

  5. Bias is most pernicious when unacknowledged. (It’s not good enough to say: I’m not _______ , ’cause some of my friends are ________.) Much of the antis movement in Amherst (anti-student, anti-development, anti-investment, anti-politics) is born of fear of change. Students are the essence of change and progress – that really scares some people in town. George Ryan has is dead right above: student populations are routinely marginalized. But I would take it a step further: they’re blindly marginalized.

  6. Since I see college students as an integral part of our community, I thought I would respond to Nick’s post. I just read my online Collegian responses and I discovered that my response about the University and colleges was edited. Only the first paragraph was there…Here’s what I wrote:

    The town’s relationship with Hampshire College, Amherst College and UMass is a symbiotic one, which offers wonderful benefits but also creates challenges. For example, UMass houses barely over 50% of its undergraduates and graduate students. Consequently, the need for student housing has impacted our community, driving up home prices, limiting affordability, and taxing town services and institutions. College students support local businesses, participate in town events and forums, volunteer in our schools, at the Amherst Survival Center, at Not Bread Alone, and in many other ways that help our community thrive. We need each other.

    The colleges and university already have a voice in town decisions, often driving development and affecting taxes and other economic issues. I would like to see them take on a share of our tax burden and costs. Amherst College needs to join the growing list of private colleges that make significant, unrestricted financial contributions to their local towns. UMass needs to help pay for the cost of educating elementary, middle, and high school students who live in non-taxable student housing. Each of these things would help to stabilize town finances.

    While you still might not agree with me, I am not anti-student…Hope to see you again at Not Bread Alone, Pat

    1. Pat:

      Thank you for those comments. I think that your point about asking AC and Hampshire to participate in a PILOT program is very important. While the Colleges and UMass add immeasurably to our overall quality of life, their lack of consistent, significant, cash contributions to the Town annual budget has contributed to holding Amherst back in a number of ways. One of the things that I would really like to see our Council take on is working on a true long term, mutually beneficial relationship with our three institutions of higher ed – and to communicate that process and its results to our citizenry.

      What are the best practices for Town-Gown partnerships? What is the vision that our Higher Ed friends and neighbors have for this, their home community? How does that vision jibe with residents’ and local government’s vision?

      I would ask all Council candidates to articulate their thoughts on this issue, although I wouldn’t make this another survey ; )

      I, for one, believe that we can create a best-in-class/model relationship and that is one of the reasons I strongly support our Council form of government. I think building that relationship takes sustained commitment on the part of Town Government, a commitment that needs the attention of both Town employees AND the Town Legislature.

      Again, thank you for raising this issue.

  7. Hello, Jerry- I think if you read what I wrote with more openness, you might see that I am not anti development or biased against students.

    I request you consider more deeply that we all live in a small town, and it works to be neighborly.



  8. I am hopeful that other voices, besides Amherst Forward ones, find a home here, where they can be read and understood and engaged with. So I am eager to read more from Ira Bryck and Pat De Angelis, and others who may feel that they disagree with the Amherst Forward perspective. I tend to agree with Amherst Forward, but I want to read other perspectives. We used to have a place for this kind of discourse. It was the Amherst Bulletin Commentary page. But no more. So this page could serve that function in the future. We need a place for informed, intelligent, big picture thinking about the Town, and the immortal, anonymous souls at the Gazette are not providing that now.

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