Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Amherst reworking nuisance house bylaw to include a wider range of offenses

While still in the early stages of revision, changes to the bylaw will have a direct impact on student renters
Daily Collegian archives (2011)

The Amherst Community Resources Committee is in the process of reworking the town’s rental bylaws. While the committee is still in the early stages of revisions, the changes are likely to have a direct impact on student renters.

Formally known as the “nuisance house bylaw,” the committee was specifically tasked with reworking the nuisance rental bylaw to be more specific and incorporate a larger range of offenses.

“The general most vague definition [of nuisance] would be the disturbance of essentially the quiet enjoyment in a neighborhood,” committee member Mandi Jo Hanneke said.

The current language of the nuisance rental bylaw targeted specifically noisy house parties and underage drinking. The committee plans to keep this offense in the bylaw, but also add obstruction of sidewalks, maintenance of vegetation on properties and uncollected and accumulation of trash as nuisance offenses.

“The members of the Committee really didn’t think [that] what the bylaw [is] regulating matches what people think of as a nuisance house,” Hanneke said. The committee thought the bylaw could be used more effectively, especially because there is already a noise complaint bylaw which is enforced by the police.

“What we decided was we need to look more holistically at that bylaw as it relates to other bylaws in town, to see if we can define nuisance in a wider range of activities,” she said.

Additionally, the committee is divided on whether to make it a nuisance offense to have more than four unrelated individuals living in a single-family rental unit.

It is currently illegal, as stated in the zoning bylaw, to have more than four unrelated individuals living in one single family dwelling unit. “We refer to that as the four unrelated rules,” Hanneke said.

There is an even split between committee members on whether this language should also be also added to the nuisance rental bylaw and if it should be an immediate offense, in which case there would be immediate enforceable consequences. “The question is, how many places should it be a violation?” Hanneke asked.

Most bylaw enforcement in the town of Amherst operates on complaint-based enforcement.

According to Hanneke, the committee is trying to shift enforcement to be proactive instead of reactive. “Most of our bylaws are complaint-driven enforcement, which means if there is no complaint, there is no enforcement,” Hanneke said.

The town’s building and health inspector Jon Thompson, who oversees more than 5,000 rental housing units, clarified the complaint reactionary process includes five steps.

Step one is initiated when a “party or inspector” reports a complaint either in person or over the phone. A complaint can come from anyone, there is also an anonymous complaint system.

Hanneke noted that nuisance complaints are usually only considered valid when they come from someone who is directly affected. “If we were to change the violation,” Hanneke said, “the people who could call it in are imposed upon by that nuisance.”

Step two is called the research phase. Thompson and his team gather all information they can access about the rental unit.

“One of the things I realized when I first started this is it is hard to track down owners of rental properties,” Thompson said. “If I ask for a copy of the lease, they have to provide it within 48 hours, so I can see who the occupants are, that sort of thing.”

Step three is the inspection process. Thompson or someone from his team will look at the property in depth, centered around the specific complaint, but also noting any additional violations.

In step four, correction orders are explicitly written and given to the owner of the rental property.

Finally, in step five either corrections are made, or further enforcement is taken.

It is still unclear on what team would enforce the nuisance bylaw and what the consequences of a violation would be.

“It’s in [the] early stages,” Hanneke said. “The committee has only had two conversations.” Hanneke noted the committee’s discussions are still vague, and in the upcoming meetings they will work to narrow down their ideas.

Regarding the four unrelated rules, Hanneke noted, “It would probably be a violation written to the individuals living there not to the property owner.”

The committee is also contemplating writing a warning system into the bylaw, which is not typically done.

“That warning system is not in the bylaw itself, that’s just up to the officer’s discretion,” Hanneke said, in relation to noise complaints, which is a separate bylaw and is typically a $300 fine. Typically, officers give a warning, but they are not required to do so, Hanneke noted.

The committee is also trying to draft a new bylaw that deals with health and safety. This bylaw would require town-controlled inspections for rental units. Landlords would need to go through a rigorous process to get the unit inspected and it would need to pass by the town standards.   

“In order to get a permit, the rental units will need to be inspected by our town personnel, instead of the landlord just saying ‘yes, we comply,’” Hanneke said.

Again, the committee is in early stages of this project, and Hanneke encouraged all students concerned to attend Community Resource Committee meetings, which take place every other Thursday at 4:30 p.m..

Ben Weitz, secretary of external affairs for the University of Massachusetts Student Government Association, encourages students to learn about Amherst’s laws, voice their opinions at town meetings and know their rights in rental agreements. “It’s important that students know how much their voice matters,” he said.

“Members of our university community are predominantly constituents of the town council, and those councilors are elected to learn from our concerns,” Weitz, a senior mathematics and public health sciences double major, said in an email to the Collegian.

Grace Lee can be reached at [email protected].

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    Garrett JacobsmeierMay 2, 2023 at 9:00 am

    In a town where nobody is able to find housing, the committee aims to crack down on “four unrelated individuals” living together by broadening police power with vague rules and regulations. Stricter regulations on student roommates cramming in small rooms to save some of the little money they have while housing prices settle around $1000 monthly. All the while landlords shove as many units into buildings as possible, building tiny airplane isle sized kitchens to skirt regulations through technicalities. Go ahead Amherst, allow anyone related or unrelated to the people living in a house to file a complaint, send the cops in, and throw around fines. Fantastic moral stance in the face of 30,0000 struggling students. Force landlords to write up strict leases while remaining lax in practice, telling students to their faces that they can have friends over at night until one complaint sends the cops to their door and their lease is terminated. What an intelligent, moral, based-in-reality policy.