Amherst Town Council eyes rental bylaw changes

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2022 6:05:42 PM
Modified: 3/28/2022 6:04:46 PM

AMHERST — Periodic inspections of rental housing could become part of a revised bylaw that would give the town more oversight of properties, ensuring they are both safe for their inhabitants, and not degrading to neighborhoods.

“The idea is we are working to make livable, safe housing, and that we’re not allowing neighborhood crashing,” District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said at a recent Town Council working session at which councilors began examining potential changes to the rental registration bylaw implemented in 2014.

Following receipt of a memo from fellow councilors explaining the need to make adjustments to the bylaw, and an initial draft of potential amendments, the full council agreed to have the bylaw examined by the Community Resources Committee. That committee will be charged with filing a report and making recommendations, in accordance with the town’s comprehensive housing policy, by Dec. 31.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said the language used in the revised bylaw will have to be carefully crafted, observing that the memo suggests the bylaw incentivize leasing to “well-behaved tenants” and disincentivize leasing to “poorly behaved tenants.”

“I really, really want ‘well-behaved’ and ‘poorly behaved’ struck,” DeAngelis said, noting that those terms can be seen as “coded” language. “I’m really kind of appalled by the phrasing,” she added.

DeAngelis said there have been occasions in Amherst in which residents have called police on Black teenagers for simply playing in their own yard. “There’s such a chance to be racist and abusive with this language,” DeAngelis said.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub, who has been working on the initial revisions, said the language is not meant to be inflammatory or offensive, but rather to tell property owners that the behavior of tenants is their responsibility, too.

“From experience, there have been property owners that say it’s not my responsibility, I don’t live there,” Taub said.

Pam said the safety and welfare of tenants is important, but so is the preservation of homes and prevention of decay in neighborhoods. She said there is nothing negative toward college students in the bylaw.

District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney said a goal in restructuring the bylaw is that the number of rental units in town is going up, even as the number of rental permits declines, and that the current $100 fees assessed per property don’t reflect any difference between owner-occupied homes and those properties that are entirely rental.

Currently, a self-certification checklist is used rather than regular inspections. “Town staff are spread thin on enforcing the regulations,” Rooney said.

Other goals include ensuring rental properties are properly maintained and code-compliant, creating a more equitable fee structure and a licensing program with educational components, and addressing the town’s adopted climate action goals.

The memo outlines some of what could be done to improve the bylaw, said At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke A more rigorous inspection system could be one outcome, such as yearly examination of student rentals.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller said the draft document is a mish-mash of bylaws from other communities and includes concepts such as a point system based on the behavior of tenants.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said that she wants to make sure that police calls to addresses are not a criterion for doing more inspections. She said she’d like to see University of Massachusetts efforts to promote peace in off-campus neighborhoods incorporated into the bylaw in some way.

Confusion about how students are defined in the bylaw needs to be addressed, said District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier. “I’d love to see it more clarified in the document,” she said.

District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes, herself a renter, said the language in the bylaw should not be off-putting, especially if one of the goals in the revisions is to attract more single-family renters to town.

While she sees the early draft as a great start, At-Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said officials will need to define behavior and understand cultural competency and the different ways people live.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said the revisions to the bylaw should be seen as a component of promoting the general welfare, observing that the noise and nuisance house bylaws are helping to address problems that arise at rentals.

“The problems with rental registration are obvious, but solving the rental registration is not necessarily going to be a solution to all problems,” Steinberg said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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