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

Potential changes coming to Amherst town bylaws impacting student renters

Nuisance property bylaw and residential rental property bylaw could impact renting in Amherst
Danielle Augeri

The Community Resources Committee (CRC) of the Amherst Town Council is revising its residential rental property bylaw and the nuisance property bylaw, proposing new changes that will affect renters and property owners in Amherst.

The updates to the residential rental property bylaw will change the town’s inspection system and introduce a new inspection fee. Proposed changes to the nuisance house bylaw include an expanded list of offenses, a nuisance property designation and corrective action plan.

The council is considering these amendments because they say they have received a large number of complaints from community members about issues relating to public nuisances and rental properties that cannot be solved with the current bylaw.

Residential rental property bylaw

Amherst’s current inspection policies allows property owners to obtain rental permits and renewals through annual self-certification. Owners determine through their own examinations that their properties comply with the town provided “Certification Checklist” in order to be granted necessary permits.

Town Council member and CRC chair Mandi Jo Hanneke believes this policy, which abides by the current bylaw, has become “problematic” for ensuring that “our housing stock is safe and healthy for tenants.” Hanneke described the unacceptable living conditions outlined in tenant responses to a CRC conducted survey, saying tenants reported having holes in walls “that go directly to the outside” along with exterior doors that do not lock and windows that cannot be closed.

Proposed changes to the inspection policy remove self-certification and instead implement inspections conducted by appointed Code Enforcement officers every five years.

Hanneke said the council’s goals are to incentivize owners to update their properties “to ensure that if you’re going to live in Amherst and you don’t own your home, you have a safe place to live.”

These proposed changes introduce a $150 inspection fee for owners for each unit on their property.

Changes to the inspection procedures and the new fee are likely to lead to an increase of rents for tenants across Amherst.

Hanneke acknowledges that “the fees being charged will likely be passed on” to renters in addition to the money that owners will need to invest in their properties to meet inspection standards. Fees from inspections that occur due to complaints cannot be passed on to renters.

Vice Chair of the CRC Pam Rooney believes rent increases passed down through fees will be “nominal,” and could average five dollars per month among four roommates living in a single-family home. Rent changes as a result of the actions taken by individual landlords to pass inspection are harder to predict.

Both Hanneke and Rooney see the potential rent increases as a worthy tradeoff to ensure safer housing across Amherst.

The latest draft of the rental property bylaw is currently under legal review with council aiming to have it passed in late November or early December.

This timeframe could be disrupted by allegations on behalf of the Amherst Landlord Association that accused the proposed bylaw of being “against the United States Constitution, the Massachusetts Constitution and against Massachusetts law.”

The association aired their grievances in a Sept. 25 letter addressed to Town Manager Paul Bockelman and CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke threatening legal action if a consensus on the “language, fees, and provisions” included in the bylaw is not reached.

Hanneke was hesitant to comment on the association’s claims. Vice Chair said the council was instead “setting the bar high” for owners to encourage them to see their properties as more than a “cash cow.”

“They’re feeling a little squeezed because they’re being held to, or hopefully will be held to a higher standard of management.”

Nuisance property bylaw

CRC Chair Mandi Jo Hanneke says the nuisance bylaw remains in a “major revision stage” with the latest working and “simplified”   draft being presented at the Nov. 2 committee meeting.

The council has heard many complaints relating to parking, noise, trash disposal and unkempt properties. CRC Vice Chair Pam Rooney said that “poor behavior is starting to compromise quality of life.”

Hanneke states many of these complaints are directed towards “single family homes, being bought out by investors and then turned into what the neighbors call student rentals.”

She clarified, “A lot of the focus is on houses that are occupied by a lot of undergraduates” but that the bylaw itself is not solely “student focused” as it would address a wide range of issues within the community.

The current bylaw relies heavily on issuing $300 fines to those who create a “public nuisance” defined as “a violation of law” or “a substantial disturbance of the quiet enjoyment of private or public property.”

Hanneke believes “tickets aren’t working” to correct behavior and solve the issues creating neighborhood conflicts.

The council is looking to broaden the definition of a “nuisance” to include references to Massachusetts general laws relating to disorderly conduct, as well as Amherst general and zoning bylaws.

The proposed bylaw also includes a clause relating to “activities that may not violate a specific law, bylaw, or regulation, but that disturb the enjoyment of a property” specifically designating “indoor furniture on the front lawn” as a nuisance.

Proposed additions to what actions constitute a “nuisance” under the general bylaw include “regulations relating to animals, false alarms, junked vehicles, illegal dumping, and refuse collection and recyclable materials.” The references to zoning bylaw address “outdoor lighting, vegetation, parking, and occupancy related to household.”

Referencing occupancy related to households would effectively write what is known as the “four unrelated rule” into the nuisance house bylaw. The existing zoning bylaw restricts the number of unrelated individuals that can reside in a single residential unit to four persons.

The drafted bylaw also includes a new nuisance property designation that would be issued “upon a third violation of this Bylaw ensuing within the current Lease period if a rental property, or a 1-year period, or at the discretion of the enforcing authority.”

Owners of the property will be contacted and face potential liability upon the third offense.

This designation places owners at risk of facing “suspension, revocation, or denial of a Residential Rental Permit…if attempts at (correction) compliance fail.” This permit is legally required to rent out most dwellings apart from specific exemptions as stated in the residential rental property bylaw.

The Amherst Landlord Association took a stance against property owners being held liable for the actions of their tenants in the letter sent about the residential rental property bylaw, and described the possibility as a “violation of many laws, both civil and criminal” and an “infringement on due process rights.”

“This would be equivalent to holding a landlord guilty of murder if a third party committed murder on the landlord’s property even though they had not aided or abetted the committing of the crime.”

Rooney maintains that it is the responsibility of property managers and owners to “establish guidelines for behavior for your tenants.”

Furthermore, the CRC is proposing a new corrective action plan as a means of correcting a nuisance house property designation.

Owners will need to schedule a meeting with the town within one week of the designation where they will be offered “1. A written approval of the Corrective Action Plan and timeframe for implementation; or 2. A written list of deficiencies that need to be addressed and timeframe for implementation” by the town.

A “property is cleared of Nuisance status following corrective actions, inspection for compliance, and written approval by the Town.” Hanneke said the purpose of the corrective action plan is to “get people talking to each other and fixing that issue or recognizing how to minimize the issue.”

The nuisance house bylaw is in a “very fluid” stage and things will likely continue to change and develop.

The timeline for finalizing and adopting these changes is impacted by the seating of new councilmembers in January.

Hanneke believes that that bylaw will likely not be voted on until the spring because of the “reorganization of the council” and approval necessary from other committees.

Bella Astrofsky can be reached at [email protected].

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