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Proposed permit system for Amherst rentals gets mixed reviews

The primarily complaint-driven permitting system, aimed at getting a handle on the growing number of rentals affecting single-family neighborhoods, received mixed feedback at the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group meeting Tuesday night that drew more than 50 people. There was an evident divide between those who own homes in neighborhoods and those who are either renters or landlords.

For residents affected by rapid changes in which limited liability companies are purchasing single-family homes to convert into rentals, establishing a permit system is essential.

Rolf Karlstrom of Fearing Street said neighborhoods are no longer safe and healthy for families because they are being impacted by noise, underage drinking and illegal bars.

“I think this permitting system is the single most important thing Amherst can do to preserve its neighborhoods,” Karlstrom said.

For renters though, the question is whether permits will deal with issues actually affecting neighborhoods.

“It sounds like from what I’ve heard tonight that will not be possible,” said Denise Barberet of North Whitney Street, who said she has rented her home for 20 years. Barberet said the proposed system doesn’t seem to address quality of life issues and out-of-control behavior, instead just expanding the town’s scope of vigilance.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe acknowledged that the only way to revoke a permit would be an egregious act on the part of the landlord. “I called this the nuclear option,” she said.

She said the working group has used a deliberative process.

“At this point, we have strong support to shape these regulations as a permit system,” O’Keeffe said.

This would begin with rental registration. There would be a self-certification checklist for landlords, a form that provides the town information that units have been inspected, offers contact information for the property owner or manager, and is signed by the property owner under penalty of perjury.

Landlords would be required to give tenants copies of local regulations and bylaws related to rentals and create a parking plan, including requiring that vehicles be on paved or surfaced lots.

The town would not require inspections of properties by a code enforcement official, O’Keeffe said.

Should violations be reported and discovered by inspectors, though, the system would allow for fines, a court process and suspensions of permits.

Town Manager John Musante said the idea is to make improvements to how rental properties are regulated in Amherst and to do so in practical, fair ways. He said he expects to bring a proposal to Town Meeting in May.

Town Meeting member Vincent O’Connor of Precinct 1 said the system must have a recourse for removing permits.

He pointed to large-scale disturbances at Townehouse Apartments on Meadow Street.

“We cannot tolerate the kinds of gatherings that have occurred at that place and other places in town,” O’Connor said.

Other renters, as well as some landlords, said they are concerned that a permitting requirement would be adding cost for landlords.

Carol Albano of Spaulding Street said the increased bureaucracy will force her to pass on an increase in rents to her tenants. She said her tenants are also worried about invasion of privacy if inspections are required.

On the other side, homeowners question whether permits will be useful.

Britt Ruhe of 315 Lincoln Ave. said she is worried that new regulations either won’t be enforced or won’t be enforced in a timely manner.

“My fear is this will be passed and won’t affect anyone,” Ruhe said.

Priscilla White of 318 Lincoln Ave. said the town needs ways to bring control to bad properties and having inspections is one way.

“The bylaws you’ve been working on so hard, it’s so important they are enforceable,” White said.

Steven Bloom of Precinct 10, a member the Coalition of Neighborhoods, made up of residents on streets where rentals have begun to have a negative impact, said he supports a “light” rental permitting system that would begin to change behavior of those living in rentals.

Bloom said having such a minimal mechanism has worked in other college towns, including Newark, Del., home of the University of Delaware.

In fact, the coalition commissioned a report by Roy Lopata, a Newark municipal planning and management consultant who has expertise in rental permitting and zoning controls. Lopata’s report suggests the town regulate rentals as business uses, but also encourage the development of off-campus multi-family style housing in appropriate places.

The working group will meet again March 12.

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