Louis S. Greenbaum: Amherst’s proposed rental permit bylaw a case of legal overkill
AMHERST — In a ringing endorsement of a proposed rental permit bylaw for Amherst, Eric Beal, the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, concluded that “Although the rental permit bylaw cannot cure all that ails us, surely that is no excuse to do nothing.”
On the contrary, the new bylaw heading to Town Meeting is more harmful than doing nothing. Landlords and tenants are being punished for the inability of Town Hall to enforce existing codes, statutes and bylaws.
The new permitting system requires the annual registration and licensing of all owner- and non-owner-occupied rental units in Amherst. It mandates the preparation of detailed information describing each property; the hiring of a local agent if the owner lives more than 10 miles away; to “self-inspect” every unit annually using a checklist provided by the town that only an engineer can understand; to supply all tenants annually with information sheets enumerating all the applicable laws; to limit occupancy to no more than four unrelated persons; to limit all parking to surfaced areas; and to submit a parking plan for each property that conforms to zoning laws.
A license or permit will henceforth be required to give the owner the right to rent his or her property. What the town of Amherst gives with one hand, however, it can take back with the other. Licenses can be suspended for up to three years for repeated violations. In addition the town sets annual fees for each property, as well as fines, to pay for a new registration bureaucracy, a regiment of new inspectors and support staff to regulate more than 5,000 housing units.
Why are landlords called on to finance the new bylaw, which they oppose, together with tenants who should not be penalized with rent increases due to the mandated added costs. Nor should tenants’ rights for the peaceful enjoyment of their homes be abridged by the intrusion of visiting inspectors.
Since this legislation is being crafted in the interests of “all,” why shouldn’t the community pay for it out of Amherst property taxes?
State and local codes enumerated by Beal in an Amherst Bulletin essay are the same laws on the books — which inspectors are empowered to use to go after abuses or violations. They are the same laws that would be used in the new bylaw. So why don’t town inspectors go after present abuses now, as they are empowered to do, instead of promulgating a punitive, expensive, highly discriminatory and unneeded new policy?
Doesn’t Amherst already have enough regulations and controls?
Nor is the growth of the University of Massachusetts to be regretted but rather to be celebrated for the long-term prosperity and stability it brings to our town. It lavishes $1.25 billion on the local economy each year, keeps providing jobs and, most important, increases educational opportunity to students eager to pursue their studies at a world-class university. Our students are far and away decent, serious-minded and hardworking people. They have the right to live close to campus if they wish in neighborhoods of their choice without prejudice.
Instead of cupidity and greed, commonly attributed to them, responsible landlords unconditionally accept safety and health as the cornerstone of rental housing. They take pride in their property and acknowledge that in renting safe and healthy units they are offering an invaluable service, contributing to basic human and social needs, respecting tenants and their right to enjoy a dignified environment.
Louis S. Greenbaum lives in Amherst.