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Enforcement component of proposed Amherst rental registration program to cost $218,000

A draft of the plan, which will be presented to Town Meeting in May, was unveiled at the final Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group meeting this week.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe, a member of the working group, said about 65 percent of the cost would come from the $100 registration fees assessed to landlords per property. She said there are an estimated 1,575 rental properties in Amherst.

The remainder of the budget would come from the municipal operating budget, which already includes $75,000 to pay the salary and benefits for housing code enforcement officer Jon Thompson.

The budget related to the rental permitting system would pay for a second code enforcement officer and an administrative assistant, according to Building Commissioner Robert Morra’s plan.

The working group, meeting since November, completed its work on a proposed bylaw this week. The goal is to have every rental property owned by an individual or company registered by Jan. 1, 2015.

The language of the proposed bylaw will be reviewed by Town Manger John Musante and town counsel Kopelman and Paige PC before being presented to Town Meeting.

To obtain a permit, a property owner would fill out an online registration form with contact information and the number of units at the site, complete a self-inspection checklist on each unit and draft a parking plan. After review by town inspections staff, a permit valid for one year would be issued.

O’Keeffe said permits will be easy to obtain and hard to lose. One purpose of requiring rental permits is to get a handle on undesirable tenant behavior that affects residential neighborhoods.

“Anyone making good faith efforts to address the problems and seek compliance would not be vulnerable to permit suspension,” O’Keeffe said.

Janet Keller, a member of the working group who represents North Amherst, where there are many student rentals, told the Select Board this week that it is important landlords act on behavioral issues quickly.

Enforcement of the rental registration system, though, would be largely complaint driven. This fiscal year, the building commissioner has responded to 180 complaints. More are expected if the rental permitting system is adopted.

O’Keeffe said the system is not designed to be onerous for either the landlords or the tenants, though some tenants have publicly expressed concern about added costs being passed on to them. “Compliance is what is really being sought here,” O’Keeffe said.

The hope is the proposed regulation would be a tool to ensure rental properties are well maintained and the town has a record of where they are, O’Keeffe said.

O’Keeffe said a permit would only be suspened if a landlord commits egregious violations. Tenant behavior alone would not be sufficient, she said. A rental appeals board also would be established.

As a general bylaw, the registration system will need only majority support to be approved at Town Meeting. Then it would go to the state attorney general for approval. Property registration would begin Jan. 1, 2014.

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