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Denise Barberet: Amherst should get its own house in order

At a recent Select Board meeting, the chair of the board finally acknowledged that the proposed rental registration bylaw is not about bad student behavior, but rather about the condition of rental properties in town. Rather than address and resolve behavioral issues that affect, directly or indirectly, the quality of life of all residents, the town has chosen to focus its attention on the new and virtually undocumented problem of threats to the health and safety of those who rent.

And this bylaw will not limit itself to properties that indeed appear to present problems, such as those with lawns turned to parking lots, unkempt and overflowing with trash after the weekend’s entertainment. It will train its vigilant eye on not just students, but on everyone who rents, including professors, families, responsible working adults, retirees.

While the original plan of annual inspection by town officials has been dropped, this bylaw will now require all landlords, including those who only rent out a room in their home, to inspect their properties annually and to certify — under pains and penalties of perjury — that, among many other things, their units have “sufficient natural light,” that they are accessibility-compliant and that there is sound buffering (the latter two being conditions that no Victorian house will likely meet). New staff will be hired to tame the resulting flood of paperwork, and yet, for all its vigilance, the system will continue to be complaint-driven.

As well, the chair of the Select Board has made it clear that permits to rent given under the new system will be revoked only in the case of egregious behavior by the property owner — not by the tenants.

According to the 2010 census, Amherst has 5,001 rental dwelling units; 56 percent of the population rents. Of this 56 percent, only a small percentage is principally responsible for the quality-of-life issues that the town faces. And now that 56 percent of the population, because they pay rent rather than a mortgage, will be subjected to annual scrutiny for their own health and safety — a scrutiny that no homeowners will face, no matter the condition of their properties. This is not intrusive, we are told by the working group that fashioned this bylaw — homeowners all, with not a single renter as a member with an official voice or vote.

If this bylaw is not about controlling bad behavior, and if action will only be taken when a complaint is received, and if rental permits will only be revoked in the case of overtly egregious (but still undefined) bad behavior by the property owner, what, then, is its purpose?

The town has expressed great concern about the condition of rental housing, although it has provided only vague anecdotal evidence as to how widespread this problem is, and although any issues can already be addressed under current regulations.

It would be lovely if we all lived where everything was in perfect working order. Yet even the town itself cannot manage that. Our roads continue to be in deplorable condition; our fire department has been understaffed for more than 50 years; CPA projects remain in backlog because the Planning Department continually takes on other tasks. The town should get its own house in order before it tells others what to do with theirs.

Denise Barberet lives in Amherst.

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