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Support for registering rental properties in Amherst, questions about future inspections

AMHERST — Residents affected by an influx of rental units in neighborhoods and owners of rental properties told municipal officials Tuesday that Amherst should begin requiring licenses for those wishing to house tenants.

But at the same time they cautioned against mandating regular inspections of these properties, which they said could make any rental registration program unwieldy and ineffective and also might not serve to address the community concern of misbehaving renters.

At the first of two public forums hosted by the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group, Maurianne Adams, a Precinct 10 Town Meeting member, said permits or licenses should be issued to those seeking to do business in Amherst. A rental registration system, she said, would be “something that designates this a commercial activity that requires compliance.”

Adams said inspections should be secondary to permitting and suggested a three-tiered system that would segment rentals into three categories: owner-occupied rentals, large apartment complexes and companies that are purchasing homes for the express purpose of converting them to rentals.

Joel Greenbaum of Hadley, who owns and manages several rental properties in Amherst, said registration of rental properties is a worthwhile endeavor.

“Penalties are in order for those who refuse to do so,” Greenbaum said.

Moving beyond this to regular inspections is a concern, though, because it might become too regulated and burdensome, he said. “Enforcement should be complaint driven,” Greenbaum said.

The working group, established in October by Town Manager John Musante and made up of residents, town and University of Massachusetts officials and property owners, used the forum as an opportunity to gather feedback and provide an update on progress toward establishing a rental registration bylaw expected to come before Town Meeting in May.

Musante has charged the group with identifying residential rental regulations in place in similar college towns and developing a code for Amherst.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe, who is a member of the panel, said the group wants to make sure licensing regulations have teeth while at the same time protecting the rights of those who live in homes that need to be inspected.

O’Keeffe said there are five questions being confronted. These are what would inspections of rental properties entail, how would parking plans be reviewed and approved, what are the penalties for noncompliance, how will homes be accessed and what should be done with the existing bylaw that limits all dwellings to four unrelated housemates.

Assistant Town Manager David Ziomek, who is overseeing the working group, said the town is already being more vigilant with rental units under building commissioner Robert Morra and housing code enforcement officer Jon Thompson. The licensing of rental properties is seen as the next step in this process, Ziomek said.

Lincoln Avenue resident Patricia Stacey argued in favor of permits for rentals.

“What I’m asking for is to give people the power to revoke a license (and) the privilege of using our neighborhood as a place to make money, as a place to run a business,” Stacey said.

Precinct 1 Town meeting member Melissa Perot said any new regulations need to be written so that the town can actually take action against landlords.

“The emphasis here has to be on what can be enforced and make recommendations on what can be enforced,” Perot said.

Perot was instrumental in getting a nuisance house bylaw approved by fall Town Meeting. She said it was written so that police, inspectors and town officials can hold both tenants, many of whom are UMass students, and property managers, accountable.

Jennifer Taub of Lincoln Avenue also asked the town to develop a permit certificate that puts the town in control of companies seeking to purchase properties for the express purpose of making money from rentals.

Taub said any system imposing fines or penalties on egregious violators would be difficult to implement, noting that many landlords are “lawyered up.”

Cinda Jones, who owns and manages several rental units in North Amherst, said she sympathizes with those affected by student rentals on Lincoln Avenue, which is near her childhood home on Amity Street.

“Like my neighborhood where I grew up, I’ve never seen as out of control kids as I have lately,” Jones said.

Jones said a group of landlords is already working toward establishing a system of best practices that can be used to get a handle on problem homes and the tenants who live in them. One suggestion is requiring all rental properties to have town bylaws related to noise and nuisances posted in a visible way near the main entrance.

Jones advocated for a landlord-supported fund that could be used to hire more police details focused on student behavior, which would replace private security that many are already using.

The working group is also considering changes to the bylaw that limits dwellings to four unrelated housemates, no matter the size of the home.

But Ziomek said the discussion on four unrelated housemates has not yet begun. “By and large, we’ve put this off,” Ziomek said.

There is disagreement on whether this should happen. Residents who live near rental properties said the restriction should remain.

But Greenbaum said the cap should be lifted because it has a way of spreading students out into neighborhoods. As long as they can live safely in a home, Greenbaum said increasing the restriction might reduce problem spots.

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