The missing middle in Amherst housing

Amherst needs more housing. We need housing for the students who liven up our town, for families who send their kids to our public schools, for retirees who wish to age in place, and for service workers who want to live near where they work.

To address these needs, we need housing in the “missing middle” — duplexes, triplexes, and townhomes — buildings that are generally seen as more attainable at many income levels, and compatible in a wide variety of neighborhoods. Fortunately, our Master Plan agrees and provides many ways to create opportunities for producing this housing.

Wanting to address the missing middle, as well as historically racist and exclusionary zoning practices, we recently proposed sensible zoning changes with the goal of creating more opportunities to build owner-occupied, affordable, and attainable housing. Since our proposal was first presented to the Town Council, it has undergone substantial revisions based on feedback from the Planning Board, Community Resources Committee, the public, and our own town staff.

Unfortunately, a petition circulating asking the council to reject the proposal presents an inaccurate picture of the changes currently being debated at the Planning Board and Community Resources Committee, and mistakenly argues that if revisions can’t guarantee the fulfillment of the desired goals, they shouldn’t be done at all.

So, what are the biggest changes our proposal makes?

First, it focuses on reasonable permitting changes to owner-occupied duplexes, affordable duplexes, and converted dwellings.

For owner-occupied or affordable-restricted duplexes, it permits the first duplex on any residential property without requiring a public hearing, just like every single-family home. For all other owner-occupied or affordable duplex projects, the permitting process stays nearly identical to the current requirements, including keeping neighbor notification. And, the permitting pathway doesn’t change at all for non-owner-occupied duplexes. We’ve focused these changes on the very housing our town says it wants and needs — owner-occupied homes and affordable homes.

Our proposal also adopts the position that a converted dwelling is appropriate in all residential zones. So, we propose that renovating an existing building to add dwellings — like garage conversions or finishing a basement into a separate studio apartment — would undergo a site plan review instead of requiring a discretionary special permit. Importantly, converted dwellings will still require abutters’ notices and a public hearing.

Second, it creates a new triplex category, with all permitting the same or stricter than the current permitting for triplexes. Currently, new three-family dwellings are considered either townhomes or apartments, depending on the location of the entrances, and consequently have different conditions and rules for where they can go in town.

We believe it shouldn’t matter where the entrances are — all triplexes should have the same permit rules. Our proposal fixes this quirk in our zoning bylaw.

Third, for all these building types — duplexes, triplexes, and converted dwellings — we propose new, more comprehensive conditions that must be met before a permit is issued. For duplexes and triplexes, one new condition would allow the permit-granting authority to adopt design guidelines through the regulatory process. This would be a win for everyone who has been asking for design guidelines in town.

Will our proposal add new housing? We hope so, but we can’t guarantee that. Unfortunately, zoning legislation like this can only encourage particular types of housing over other types; it can’t force someone to build what we want them to.

Will there be unintended consequences? Maybe, but maybe not. The Planning Board, town staff, and Community Resources Committee are vetting it closely, asking lots of questions, and proposing scenarios, with the goal of covering all bases.

What we do know is that our current zoning has unintended consequences of its own. It does not encourage the creation of owner-occupied duplexes, affordable duplexes, triplexes, and converted dwellings.

Our Master Plan and our residents all say we need more of this “missing middle” housing. We have proposed one pathway with sensible changes to encourage it. It is by no means the only pathway, and we should always work on multiple fronts to address our housing needs. But refusing to change zoning will not magically fix the problem.

Changing it may help. And, we want to help.

By Mandi Jo Hanneke and Pat De Angelis

This Article was first published in the Amherst Bulletin on June 20, 2023.