Northampton’s Housing Partnership exploring rental fee changes

  • Northampton City Hall File photo

Staff Writer
Published: 3/12/2021 3:41:00 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Saying that the fees some rental agencies charge tenants to secure a place to live create a barrier to living in the city, the city’s Housing Partnership has been talking about the possibility of shifting those fees from renters to landlords — but it may take a change to state law to do so.

The finder’s fees that rental agencies charge to renters were a much-discussed issue at focus groups for a study of fair housing in Northampton, said Todd Weir, the partnership’s chairman.

“This was one of the issues that had some of the most heated conversations and feedback … the service fees that go to the renter from organizations like RentNoho,” Weir told the partnership and Mayor David Narkewicz at the group’s March 1 meeting. “We mention them by name only because they are the largest one, but there are, I think, others out there. We’ve been exploring alternatives to that.”

The idea came from a report commissioned by the city and written by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, “Unlocking Opportunity: An Assessment of Barriers to Fair Housing in Northampton.”

The report, dated August 2019, flags community concern around an increase in companies that charge finder’s fees to renters.

“Those fees are generally around 50% of first month’s rent,” Weir said, “so the barrier obviously is you come up with first and last month’s rent and another half month’s rent to pay the fee.” He added, “it puts the lower-income residents at a huge disadvantage at trying to get an apartment because of that extra cost.”

Calls to RentNoho were not immediately returned Thursday and Friday. In its online renter’s application, the firm says it charges renters a 60% commission, and on its page for owners, it says “let the experts handle your vacancies at no cost to you!”

Narkewicz told the partnership at its March 1 meeting that City Solicitor Alan Seewald told him it’s his opinion an ordinance addressing the fees would require a change in state law.

“Those civil relationships are defined by state law, not local law,” Seewald told the Gazette. “I don’t think that we can decide what contract a landlord and a rental agency can enter into.”

Because of the state constitution, “You really can’t have your own contract law in Northampton. There’s a freedom of contract between landlords and these agencies.” He added, “It’s never been decided, to my knowledge, by a court. That’s just my opinion.”

Narkewicz told the partnership that a home-rule petition — essentially a request to the state Legislature for an exception — would be an option.

“If the partnership wanted us to pursue that, I suspect the City Council would be supportive,” he said, adding that it would require passage by the council and then would be filed by a legislator. He cautioned that special acts get filed all the time. “I don’t know what the Legislature’s view would be on it … but we can certainly file it and see.”

About a year ago, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh announced he was forming a working group to study broker’s fees.

Weir explained that the Northampton Housing Partnership is trying to follow up on the fair housing report, and that they want to eliminate as many barriers to housing as possible for people.

“Say the apartment is $1,200. If they need $600 less to make it into an apartment, that could be the difference between them being able to apply or not apply. Our goal is to lower the barriers for low-income renters to be able to get into apartments,” Weir said.

There are a lot of smaller landlords in the city, Weir said, and he understands agencies are part of the system.

“We get why they might want help from an organization that screens clients … We just think it’s more fair that the landlord would pay that cost or that the entire burden doesn’t get shouldered by the low-income tenant,” he said.

At the meeting, partnership member Ace Tayloe said “the majority of rental agencies in Northampton charge fees to tenants. It is not just RentNoho.”

Northampton-based Robinson Real Estate, for example, charges a 60% fee to renters, according to its website. Its page for property owners reads, “Many property owners are surprised to discover that our services are available to them at no cost!”

Steve Slezek, owner of Robinson Real Estate, said he thinks if the fee structure is changed, rents will increase.

“I think shifting the fee is just going to be a wash because that money will be recouped through the owners in another way and that’s going to be through the rents,” he said. “I understand what they are aiming to do, and I think it’s great that Northampton has increased its affordable housing.”

Most properties Robinson rents require two months of rent and a fee, Slezek said. When asked why the service is free for owners, he said, “We don’t want to charge twice. It doesn’t make sense ... this many years of doing this, I have never been compensated by an owner.”

He later added, “Maybe it is time to change it, who knows? It’s certainly a conversation that’s worth having.”

The Housing Partnership plans to meet with City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra and Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, to discuss the issue, Weir said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.


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