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Amherst landlords, renters leery of proposed rental permit bylaw

A municipal permit system for rental properties will drive up costs and create more bureaucracy without adequately addressing the problems that prompted the proposal, say those affected.

Property managers and renters alike are expressing concern about the proposed general bylaw to come before annual Town Meeting next month that would license rentals through a $100 annual fee, per property, as recommended by the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group appointed by Town Manager John Musante. Property owners also must complete annual self-inspections and submit parking plans, which some say could be expensive.

The two property managers who served on the panel say the bylaw, which needs to win majority support at Town Meeting, goes too far.

“What came out is not what I thought we’d come out with,” said Stephen Walczak, property manager for Puffton Village. “Where I became confused is we came up with a giant net for all housing when it’s just 1 to 2 percent that are creating the problems.”

The problems he is referring to are disruptions to neighborhoods by tenants of units that serve as off-campus housing for University of Massachusetts students.

Walczak said there are an estimated 50 to 100 rental units of the 5,175 spread throughout town which are the sites of significant behavioral issues, yet the plan puts the responsibility for dealing with them on the backs of all landlords and property managers. Besides, he said, “If this is a townwide issue, why isn’t it a townwide expense?”

Patrick Kamins of Kamins Real Estate said the proposed system seems to be imposing a tax to create a more intrusive municipal bureaucracy.

“I do think landlords need to act responsibly and follow codes,” Kamins said. “But why are you punishing the many for the sins of the few?”

The town last week unveiled the general bylaw proposal and Building Commissioner Robert Morra presented a plan to implement it that included a $218,000 budget with two code enforcement officers and a one clerical worker. Of this, $75,000 is already in the municipal budget for the salary and benefits for one code enforcement officer, Jon Thompson.

Advocates have also said it could be used as leverage to force landlords to penalize chronically troublesome tenants.

Walczak said he and others believe the town can achieve this by enforcing the registration policy adopted by the Board of Health in 2003. That policy, however, has been largely ignored. Just 700 properties had been registered, and that number has diminished in the decade since it went into effect. Still, they say, that type of system could be used to require notifications to tenants about rules and parking regulations.

Walczak and Kamins contend the proposed bylaw will be a labor-intensive permitting system that provides no new means to deal with parties, disturbances and other problems that arise at rental properties.

“They could be accomplishing all this by enforcing what’s on the books already,” said Walczak, citing noise and nuisance house bylaws that impose fines and inspections by code enforcer Thompson.

No burden intended

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe, who participated in the drafting of the proposal, said the system is not designed to be onerous for either the landlords or the tenants. “Compliance is what is really being sought here,” she said.

The hope is the proposed regulation would be a tool to ensure rental properties are well maintained, in compliance with municipal regulations and the town has a record of where they are, she said. This database would be accessible for both tenants and residents.

“It is designed to protect tenants so that they’re clear what expectations are for safety of living quarters and for the town laws they’re supposed to obey, both property and behavior bylaws,” O’Keeffe said.

Since enforcement would be largely complaint driven, either by tenants or neighbors, O’Keeffe said hiring two additional staff makes sense.

“These are both results-oriented additions,” O’Keeffe said.

This fiscal year, the building commissioner has responded to 180 complaints. More are expected if the rental permitting system is adopted.

Off track

Jacob Lefton, a metalsmith who rents his home in Amherst, said he worries that landlord expenses generated by the permit system will be passed on to tenants. The requirement that a parking plan be submitted is one example. Lefton noted that his rental unit has a dirt driveway.

“Are people like me going to have to bear the brunt of replacing the driveway?” Lefton said. “I am worried renters in general in Amherst will face more costs.”

Denise Barberet, a longtime renter, noted that there were no tenants in the working group. And while it was formed to target problem properties, it veered off track, she said.

“Rather than deal with the admittedly difficult problem of behavior, the town seems to instead be focusing on something that it is easier to point fingers at and make someone fix,” Barberet said. “But as far as I can see, it will do little to nothing to control the type of behavior that people are tired of tolerating.”

Walczak and Kamins agree, questioning how the permit system will control large parties at rental properties, which have sparked the most serious complaints. For example, the recent party-turned-riot of 2,000 or more people occurred at Townehouse Apartments on Meadow Street, a property Kamins manages.

He said Townehouse has on-site management, has made exterior improvements and self-certifies that each unit is up to habitable standards. But, he said, that had no bearing on the mobs of college students in “roaming parties” who found the complex, located between the university and North Amherst center, attractive for pre-spring break revelry March 9.

Walczak also questioned how the bylaw will deter college-age people walking back to their dormitories from off-campus parties or downtown bars from causing neighborhood disturbances.

“I think, realistically, behavior is the greatest aspect of complaints for most people,” Walczak said.

Barberet agrees.

“These regulations do little to focus on or control disruptive behavior, loud parties, drinking, urination, defecation, vomiting, inappropriate behavior, cars coming and going and loud noise at all hours of the night and day,” she said.

Landlords can’t control tenant behavior, because they have no standing to make a noise complaint unless they are abutters to the property, Walczak said, so in most situations, efforts to control rowdiness would be after the fact. This puts more emphasis on the eviction process, he said, which could strain relationships between landlords and tenants.

“The fact that this isn’t a silver bullet doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. It is a tool toward making progress,” O’Keeffe said.

She said that while the proposed permit process is intended to help the town get a handle on undesirable tenant behavior, it would be hard for a landlord to actually lose a license. A permit would only be suspended if a landlord commits egregious violations, O’Keeffe said.

“What we’re looking for is compliance in every circumstance, not a pound of flesh,” she said.

Tenant behavior alone would not be sufficient to lose a license, according to O’Keeffe. A rental appeals board also would be established.

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

Kamins, however, said the bylaw could make Amherst, already a tight housing market, less desirable as a place for future property owners to do business.

“We feel strongly this will be a detriment to our industry,” Kamins said.

He said people looking to finance acquisitions of properties may run into more obstacles with the banks.

“I applaud the town for trying,” Kamins said. “I’m just not sure this is the best avenue.”

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