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Amherst Town Meeting approves rental registration bylaw

By voice vote, following more than two hours of debate, Town Meeting’s fifth session implemented the system that will require more than 5,000 rental units in town, at 1,575 properties, to be registered.

Each property, whether owner-occupied or not, would be assessed $100 to pay for the license.

Those who spoke in favor of the bylaw cited the growing number of rentals affecting neighborhoods by the behavior of tenants and upkeep of these properties.

Priscilla White of Precinct 10, a landlord who rents to University of Massachusetts students, said she supported the bylaw because overcrowded rentals, caused by absentee landlords and private out-of-town investment companies, are creating problems in her Lincoln Avenue neighborhood.

“So every day we looked at seven cars and trucks crammed into a small driveway and had to deal with a property that supports illegal behavior,” White said.

As a renter, Mandi Jo Hanneke of Precinct 5 said the bylaw would be good because it mandates information about municipal bylaws be given to tenants, as well as requiring housing stock to be habitable and code compliant.

“This article is a benefit to tenants. It’s something Town Meeting can do to benefit us renters,” Hanneke said.

The bylaw developed out of the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group put together by Town Manager John Musante last fall.

Musante said the system will be complaint-driven, is not overly bureaucratic, and is responsive to the issues. But he cautioned that it should not be seen as a silver bullet for all behavioral problems, noting that it will have to work with other programs such as the UMass online module for students living off campus.

Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said rentals are growing, making up more than half of Amherst’s housing stock. The bylaw, she said, would provide clarity, transparency and accountability, as well as additional resources in the form of a new housing code enforcement officer and a clerical staff Both positions were already approved as part of the municipal budget.

O’Keeffe said landlords would have to comply with existing health and zoning codes and current zoning and bylaws.

“Regulation isn’t about punishment. It’s about setting reasonable standards that protect everyone, and to do so fairly,” O’Keeffe said.

A previous effort about a decade ago to register rentals through the health department floundered when only about 700 properties were registered under a voluntary system.

Under the new system, every renter would have to identify the property manager and landlord, complete a self-certification checklist to demonstrate the home is up to habitable standards, provide a list of bylaws to tenants, submit a parking plan and pay the annual registration fee. Licenses could be suspended if there is egregious and willful negligence.

Several residents who spoke in favor of the article live in the Fearing and Lincoln Avenue neighborhoods

Philip Jackson of Precinct 10, who served on the working group, observed that the bylaw would not deal with behavioral issues, but does focus on creating a level playing field for landlords and ensuring safety for tenants.

“It’s only a matter of time until there’s the next serious injury, or worse,” Jackson said.

Rolf Karlstrom of Precinct 10 said dilapidated conditions encourage bad behavior. The permit system is the missing link that will allow expectations to be understood by tenants and more enforcement to take place, Karlstrom said.

But some questioned the need.

Dael Chapman of Precinct 7 said as a landlord she has experienced situations where town inspectors already can respond to complaints. This might open the door to invasions of privacy and property rights.

“Egregious landlords are few and far between, and they are easy to identify,” Chapman said.

Patrick Kamins, owner and manager of Kamins Real Estate and a member of the working group, said this will not be an effective bylaw or alleviate concerns, such as stopping large parties or events such as the Blarney Blowout or Hobart Hoedown.

Kamins said he expects banks will lend differently and cause property values to decline in Amherst.

“Let’s give town officials the support to enforce the laws they already have,” Kamins said.

Terry Franklin of Precinct 1 said he is concerned that the bylaw will impact the poorest residents by adding new regulations and making Amherst more expensive, while also treating renters as second-class citizens.

Though no renters were on the working group, Musante said tenant input was gathered throughout the public process. “We believe it has been incorporated into the overall recommendations,” Musante said

O’Keeffe agreed that the bylaw is not perfect. “What we have before us is a very strong document,” O’Keeffe said.

Maurianne Adams of Precinct 10 made a motion to exclude owner-occupied rentals from the regulations, a proposal that was defeated by a tally vote, 116 to 74.

Valerie Cooley of Precinct 1 said this would have encouraged homeowners like her to rent rooms without adding costs. “I think it’s a disincentive as it stands,” Cooley said.

A motion to refer the article back to the Select Board, made by Richard Gold of Precinct 2, failed by voice vote. Gold said the proposed bylaw would be ineffective and unnecessary because properties can already be registered through the Board of Health.

“Article 29 does not provide the answers to student excesses. That’s been stated many times tonight,” Gold said.

In addition, Gold argued the fees constitute an end run around the Proposition 2½ tax cap because the fee schedule can be adjusted at any time. “This program is basically a cash cow for town government,” Gold said.

In other business, Town Meeting decided to take up an article to purchase Echo Village Apartments and the development rights to 150 acres of woodland in the Cushman section of town at the May 29 session and approved $90,000 in cash reserves that will go toward funding five social service agencies should the town not receive transition funding through the Community Development Block Grant program.

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