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Neighborhood protection goes beyond zoning

At the upcoming special Town Meeting, members will be asked to consider seven zoning articles, and one general bylaw amendment, aimed at addressing the degradation of neighborhoods caused by poorly managed rental properties.

The proposals, four from the Planning Board and four by citizen petition, offer a variety of ways to tighten rules to make it harder for landlords to create more overcrowded, unsupervised student rental housing. None of the proposals is perfect. Some are redundant, some will be difficult to enforce, and some might have impacts beyond what is intended. Yet Town Meeting should give them serious consideration and, on balance, should probably (and likely will) approve the majority of them.

It is worth restating the trouble: An increasing rate of conversions of owner-occupied single-family homes to rental units is exacerbating the problems of noise, nuisance houses and anti- social behavior that are already at crisis proportions in some Amherst neighborhoods.

These conversions also affect the physical condition of the community: landlords create duplexes or build poorly designed additions, squeezing ever more tenants into their buildings, who then bring ever more cars onto the property. With no rules to prevent them — apparently backyard parking is unregulated — landlords also knock down outbuildings and pull out landscaping to fit more cars.

Recent statistics tell the story. Already this year we have had more than twice as many conversions of owner-occupied homes to rentals than we had in 2009 or 2010, and 50 percent more than last year. Meanwhile, town officials have reported that between June and October over 60 properties were identified as being in violation of building, health or safety codes. Although not all are rental properties, many are, and tenants are the losers, paying high rents for substandard housing.

Clearly something needs to be done right away if we don’t want to see some of Amherst’s most attractive, walkable neighborhoods become blighted and unlivable. The question is: Are the proposed zoning amendments the best possible solution?

According to last week’s Bulletin, some members of the Select Board have raised questions about the proposal to slow conversions by differentiating between owner-occupied homes and rentals. The Board chair described the proposal as “a step of last resort” and an “incredibly radical change.” She’s right, but those who live in the most impacted neighborhoods are already experiencing radical change. For those feeling unable to stay in homes where they’ve lived for years, this is a moment for last resorts.

The problem for Town Meeting members who might share reservations about these proposals is that we have not been offered alternatives. The Planning Board and the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods are to be commended for bringing forth their proposals, but they are not enough.

We need the full range of tools available to us, not just zoning. The citizen petitioners have recognized this with their proposed amendment to the Nuisance House Bylaw, but the question for the Select Board and the town manager, is this: Why isn’t there yet a proposal to create an effective and enforceable rental registration program that would hold land owners and property managers responsible for repeated violations taking place on their properties?

Whatever Town Meeting decides on the zoning questions this fall, rental regulation, with teeth, should not wait until spring Town Meeting, as seems to be the plan. The Select Board should call a special Town Meeting for early 2013 and should ask the town manager to have a plan ready for us to vote on.

Finally, beyond new regulations, the town needs to look to enforcement. How is it that, although it is common knowledge that tenants regularly operate illegal drinking establishments out of certain rental properties near the university campus, town and university leadership have failed to put a stop to it? How can a known out-of-towner claim to be the owner-occupant of an Amherst rental in order to get a special permit? No new rules will matter if we don’t get serious about enforcement.

Jim Oldham is a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5.

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