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Rental permit system potential town-gown answer in Amherst

  • Real estate investors are buying up home in neighborhoods located near the Univeristy of Massachusettsin Amherst as students seek to rent off-campus housing close by. The trend is changing the nature of neighborhoods once populated by families. The photo above shows <br/>the dormitories of the UMass Southwest Residential Area toweingr behind homes on Sunset Court.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Real estate investors are buying up home in neighborhoods located near the Univeristy of Massachusettsin Amherst as students seek to rent off-campus housing close by. The trend is changing the nature of neighborhoods once populated by families. The photo above shows
    the dormitories of the UMass Southwest Residential Area toweingr behind homes on Sunset Court.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The dormitories of the University of Massachusetts Southwest Residential Area tower behind homes on Sunset Court in the neighborhood east of Sunset Avenue.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The dormitories of the University of Massachusetts Southwest Residential Area tower behind homes on Sunset Court in the neighborhood east of Sunset Avenue.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • The dormitories of the University of Massachusetts Southwest Residential Area tower behind homes on McClure Street in the neighborhood east of Sunset Avenue.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    The dormitories of the University of Massachusetts Southwest Residential Area tower behind homes on McClure Street in the neighborhood east of Sunset Avenue.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Many Amherst residents resent the way some students renters have littered their neighborhoods and disrupted their peace and quiet with late-night partying.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Many Amherst residents resent the way some students renters have littered their neighborhoods and disrupted their peace and quiet with late-night partying.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Real estate investors are buying up home in neighborhoods located near the Univeristy of Massachusettsin Amherst as students seek to rent off-campus housing close by. The trend is changing the nature of neighborhoods once populated by families. The photo above shows <br/>the dormitories of the UMass Southwest Residential Area toweingr behind homes on Sunset Court.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The dormitories of the University of Massachusetts Southwest Residential Area tower behind homes on Sunset Court in the neighborhood east of Sunset Avenue.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • The dormitories of the University of Massachusetts Southwest Residential Area tower behind homes on McClure Street in the neighborhood east of Sunset Avenue.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Many Amherst residents resent the way some students renters have littered their neighborhoods and disrupted their peace and quiet with late-night partying.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

The complaint-driven permit system, destined for Town Meeting consideration in May, targets owners of residential rental properties. One of its stated purposes is to “protect the health, safety and welfare of tenants and other citizens ... by monitoring and enhancing compliance with basic life safety and sanitary codes through the permitting and registration of residential rental properties.”

Several other measures are geared toward ensuring that property owners who rent homes are responsible landlords and there are permit suspensions built in for non-compliance.

“Right now, they (landlords) don’t have to follow practically any rules at all,” said Jonathan Tucker, the town’s planning director. “There’s no oversight or review.”

Tucker said the nine-page bylaw will give the town another set of tools and a new framework of coordination at a time when it still doesn’t know precisely how many rental properties there are in town.

“We believe it will have a profound difference,” he said.

During the past four years, the number of former owner-occupied homes converted to rentals has tripled and many town residents fear that trend will continue and further erode the quality of life in some neighborhoods.

Tucker was one of 15 members on the town’s Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group, which drafted the bylaw.

And while there is broad support for it, others say the bylaw is overreaching.

Apart from a requiring a rental permit, it adds little to what is on the books in terms of health, safety and building codes, those critics say.

What’s more, landlords are limited in their ability to rein in bad tenant behavior, particularly when it comes to controlling noise, which they say is a police matter.

“Until you start enforcing the policies in place, why create new ones?” asked Stephen Walczak, property manager of Puffton Village, where about 1,000 students live in many of the 400 units.

Walczak has long played a role in seeking to improve quality-of-life issues in Amherst, from working with UMass and helping to write the town’s keg bylaw to pushing for penalties in the more recent nuisance house bylaw. He, along with Patrick Kamins of Kamins Real Estate, who also manages rental properties in town, were members of the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods group who voted against proposing the rental permit bylaw.

The widespread problems of noise, parking and trash are unlikely to abate with the new bylaw, some landlords say.

“We have high standards, and we still have problems,” said Curt Shumway, another Amherst property owner who rents to students. He said he makes it clear to his renters that they are expected to behave in a way that does not disturb their neighbors. Still, tenants of one of his homes on North Pleasant Street drew a citation for a nuisance house violation last year.

Removing problem student tenants is not easy, landlords say. An eviction process can take months, involve court time and be costly. In addition, students are generally transient and are on their way out the door before such a process is complete.

“Students come to you without a history, they’re a real gamble,” Walczak said.

UMass’ role

Walczak and Shumway have been exploring other avenues to improve the student rental housing atmosphere in Amherst and recently visited officials at Boston College, which has a designated employee whose role is to monitor students off-campus and enhance relationships between the wider community and the college’s students.

The Off-Campus Student Community Liaison, as he is called, responds to concerns and complaints in the community and typically works Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights patrolling areas where large numbers of off-campus students live, observing situations and responding to disturbance calls.

According to a description of the job, the liaison works closely with the Boston Police and Boston College Police, and uses intervention and mediation techniques to diffuse tensions and resolve issues that arise between students and neighbor. The employee also serves as a witness to events, which is helpful when the university seeks to take judicial action.

Both Shumway and Walczak say such a program might work in the neighborhoods around UMass. At the same time, they acknowledge that some landlords need to do a better job overseeing their rental properties, including parking violations.

Still, Shumway said he thinks UMass should take a stronger role. “They have to be a part of this,” he said. “They need a guy to come in and help break things up.”

In the last year, UMass has stepped up its efforts to help off-campus students integrate peacefully into the outlying neighborhoods. A center for off-campus students was created in the Student Union to provide space for students to meet and get information about renting apartments and getting along in Amherst.

The university meets with landlords to discuss rowdy behavior and the university is in talks with town officials about hiring a consultant to come up with new ideas to address the tight housing market and other town-gown issues.

“When the university and the town work together, good things happen,” said Nancy Buffone, UMass’ executive director of external relations and university events.

Student response

Tenant critics of the rental permit bylaw fear landlords will pass down expenses to them to comply with its terms, such as paving all parking areas.

Jacob Lefton, a former Hampshire College student and Amherst renter, whose residence has a dirt driveway, said he believes the town should enforce laws already on the books before creating new ones.

“My main issue is this is trying to target a very specific set of landlords and a very specific set of college students who are rowdy,” he said. “They’ve made a broad-based tool to do it, and it’s going to trap a lot of people in its net.”

Lefton, who has lived in Amherst for five years, said a lot of people who rent would rather own a home if they could, but real estate has become too expensive. He recalled the grind of looking at rental homes in the past and immediately sensing the nature of the former tenants simply from the stench in the air.

“The entire house would smell like beer and vomit and it was disgusting,” he said. “I think they (Amherst town officials), are trying to target houses like that.”

Still, Lefton said he’s disappointed that the town did not provide renters a seat at the table when drafting the bylaw.

“Any decision they make, the person who is going to feel it in the end is the tenant,” he said. ”I know some tenants are transient, but there are many tenants who will stay.

According to UMass student Evan Hutton, the problem between residents and students is a lack of communication. Despite UMass programs that introduce students and residents, Hutton said students are not consulted when solutions to problems are being discussed.

One idea, he said, would be to provide more opportunities for residents and students to mingle. He said downtown festivals and the farmers markets are good places to meet neighbors.

“There really isn’t a strong connection,” he said.

Kim Griffo, executive director of the International Town & Gown Association in South Carolina, said getting neighbors and students together has been a successful way to curb poor behavior in other college towns.

“When they make eye contact it’s different. You can sit down and get to know each other before things get out of hand,” she said.

Griffo said colleges and universities are becoming more involved in the care and behavior of their off-campus students because, regardless of where students are living, their actions reflect on the institutions.

Lefton agreed with Shumway that UMass needs to step up its role in helping alleviate off-campus housing problems.

“I would be surprised if UMass really cared,” he said.

UMass officials, however, say the university has a vested interest in making sure off-campus student housing arrangements succeed.

“We feel very strongly that when the university thrives, the town thrives and when the town thrives, the university thrives. It’s a very close and symbiotic relationship,” Buffone said.

Buffone said students are part of the UMass community whether they live on campus or elsewhere in Amherst or other communities. The same standards that apply to on-campus students apply to those living in the larger community, she said.

“Our students are moving off campus and we do look to educate them on what it means to live off campus ... and be a good neighbor,” Buffone said. “We encourage students to knock on neighborhood doors and introduce themselves and really be a part of that community.”

Buffone also noted that the student code of conduct applies to all students. Breaches can lead to discipline including suspension, expulsion, a disciplinary record placed in their files for seven years or referral to the university’s Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students program.

“They are held accountable,” Buffone said of off-campus students.

The town’s view

Tucker, Amherst’s planning director, said the proposed rental permit bylaw would help the town keep better track of all rental properties.

“It’s important for public health and safety reasons,” he said.

In his view, Tucker said the fears and concerns over conversion of single-family homes is a symptom of a larger problem: the lack of construction of more housing to meet the rental demand.

But until that happens, the proposed bylaw provides what he described as a regulatory framework for town officials, landlords and tenants.

“We have a mechanism for applying all the existing rules, a framework of fines. Permits can be suspended, and that is a level of economic interest that can get property owners’ attention,” he said.

Still, he said, the focus in on compliance, not punishment. “A bylaw on its own is only one of a dozen tools in the quiver.”

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