Amherst needs to get tough with absentee landlords

Last modified: Wednesday, January 02, 2013

It is with ever-increasing incredulity each week that I read Select Board Chair Stephanie O’Keeffe’s comments in the Bulletin regarding the spiraling crisis confronting Amherst.

After a weekend during which 67 students were arrested, 107 appeared in court, a police officer was injured and rendered out of commission; after repeated public appeals for help by overwhelmed, over-stretched police and fire departments and, finally, after a week-old baby’s life was potentially put at risk because all five of the town’s ambulances were occupied with student alcohol or drug abuse, here’s the latest sample of what she had to say:

“When you think about all the risk factors and societal trends, it’s clear that things would be much worse if we weren’t doing what we’re doing.”

How much worse can it get? The National Guard on North Pleasant Street?

This isn’t about risk factors and societal trends. It’s about bad town governance. And here’s why.

The University of Massachusetts continues to greatly increase undergraduate enrollment without significantly increasing on-campus housing. As a result, thousands of 18- and 19-year-old kids, most on their own for the first time, are forced to seek rental housing throughout the town.

Unscrupulous absentee landlords and speculators have swooped in to fill the demand by snatching up single-family houses wherever they can. But believe it or not, dispiriting as that is, that’s not the problem.

The problem is that the town governance, despite all efforts to the contrary by citizens they theoretically represent, has inexplicably continued to allow these absentee landlords and speculators to reap excessive profits without regulation or meaningful means of enforcement or penalties for illegal conduct.

And this recent weekend proves the folly of this reckless, short-sighted and misguided policy.

Meanwhile, as Amherst burns, Planning Director Jonathan Tucker fiddles. Tucker continues to parse technical phrase by technical phrase with personally affected citizens. Come to a Planning Board session and witness for yourself his ceaseless efforts to define an “on-site” manager as someone who doesn’t have to be on-site for up to 10 properties. Marvel with your friends at the current debate about whether an owner of an owner-occupied property “shall” or “may” be required.

What’s really going on is that town governance is hoping to keep student disturbances bottled up in a defined (by them of course) area, away from their own neighborhoods. But this is one genie that won’t stay in the bottle. Is it really O’Keeffe’s intention to drive law-abiding, tax-paying, year-round residents with families out of Amherst until all that’s left is a vast student slum of marginally maintained, unsupervised rentals?

We are one incident away from someone getting seriously hurt. And when it finally happens, like too many of our public officials these days, O’Keeffe will claim that it came out of the blue.

In the same article, O’Keeffe claims that “more creative strategies” are needed. We don’t need anymore university-community breakfasts or student information sessions. What we need are simple, common-sense measures.

First, we need a permitting system for rental properties, which, after repeated violations, allows for permits for irresponsible landlords to be revoked. Right now, the same few properties are the source of the same troubles without the town having any effective recourse. The Planning Board has already endorsed a permitting system. The planning director has said he would “try” to get something together by spring Town Meeting. O’Keeffe and her colleagues need to hold him to it.

In the meantime, four citizen warrant petitions are coming up before fall Town Meeting. Among other things, they require that absentee landlords and management companies reimburse the town for police and fire department expenses incurred by repeated violations. The other three address the conversion of single family dwellings to multi-family, close a loophole allowing unintended conversions to duplexes and seek to preserve the integrity and historic character of neighborhoods by discouraging the unnecessary demolition of existing dwellings in order to build apartment complexes.

It’s well past the time for adult supervision — and adult leadership.

Steve Bloom lives in Amherst.


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