Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

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 Town Council passes revisions to Residential Rental Property Bylaw

Inspections are now required for all rental properties, once every five years
Cade Belisle

On April 8, the Amherst Town Council approved a new residential rental property bylaw that will institute new inspections and inspection fees for rental properties. The cost of additional inspections and their respective feeds is likely to be passed on to tenants via raised rents.

The town council voted with eight members in favor and four opposed to “repeal and replace” the bylaw, the corresponding regulations and the fee schedule after a period of public comments and discussion.

Cathy Schoen (at-large), Ndifreke Ette (District one), Ellisha Walker (at-large) and Robert Hegner (District five) all voted against the revisions. Heather Hala A. Lord (District three) was absent for the vote.

The revised bylaw states that the town seeks “to implement a proactive rental inspection program to eliminate housing blight and to ensure the safety, health, and welfare of its residents.”

The inspections conducted by a “Principal Code Official or designee” will replace the former system of self-certification that allowed owners to complete a provided “Certification Checklist” to determine their compliance with town regulations.

“We need a more rigorous system and this bylaw is doing that,” District Five Counselor Ana Devlin-Gauthier said, referring to the inefficiencies she saw in the former regulations. “Many of the things that are dangerous aren’t visible from the street.”

The new revisions to the bylaw offer a more regulated way to determine if residential rental homes are compliant to all town and state health and building codes by permitting officials to enter and assess “Dwelling Units, common areas, exteriors and yards.”

Jennifer Taub, counselor for District Four, voted in favor of the changes and acknowledged that “the building commissioner’s office really doesn’t know how many units are not code compliant and meet our health and safety standards because they’ve never been inside.”

“This is an issue of public health and safety. It’s an issue of quality of life. Certainly, in my conversations with inspectors, and listening to the work of this committee over the last two years…there’s definitely a need to address this issue,” George Ryan of District Three said; Ryan voted ‘yes’ to the motion.

The bylaw states that a residential rental property that has scheduled an inspection can be offered a conditional permit. A residential rental property that has failed their inspection, but has an inspection planned, can be issued a conditional permit, which will allow time for remedies to be applied.

Both depend on if the property has followed all other requirements from Section G.2 of the bylaw.

The new bylaw imposes a $150 fee for inspections. The cost of this — and the additional costs required to update properties to be code compliant — is likely to be passed down to renters, raising the cost of rents across Amherst. The bylaw does not permit owners to “transfer or attempt to transfer fees” from inspections originating from tenant complaints, as long as the owner is given sufficient time to correct the issue and the renter is not “responsible for the violation.”

Counselor Walker voted against passing the bylaw because of the potential for fees to be passed down to renters. “We’re already seeing people really, really strained and struggling to meet their rent and their basic needs today, without any additional increases; and that is something that is very concerning to me,” Walker said.

“[Inspections and fees are] in many cities and towns in Massachusetts, inspections are just a normal part of what happens to rent,” said Counselor Taub.

A memorandum sent to the Town Council notes how towns and cities commonly have fees and regulations similar to the newly adopted ones, although they can vary significantly. In Hartford, Ct., the memorandum notes that apartment buildings with more than 40 units must pay $60 in addition to $40 per unit. Hartford permits are valid for four years.

Thomas Crossman, head of operations at Kamins Real Estate in Amherst, made a public comment at the meeting expressing that the new costs the bylaw will produce go beyond the $150 inspection fee.

“There is a lot more cost that go behind the scenes,” Crossman said. “We struggle with hiring competent staff that are capable of doing everything that goes into building maintenance and construction and all of that cost has gone up a lot, and we’re trying to keep up with that cost as operators, as property managers, and we’re struggling.”

Vincent O’Connor, a tenant living in Amherst also made a public comment expressing his disapproval.

“This is just a waste of everybody’s time and a waste of tenants’ money to do this. I can go into every apartment in this town and find something wrong. I can go into every single-family home and find many more things wrong than I found in apartments.”

O’Connor believes that encouraging tenants to advocate for themselves is a better solution than forced inspections. He “suggested in writing last month to this council,” ideas to educate and provide information that would help tenants if the landlord were mistreating them or if something needs to be repaired.

“You know [the councilmen] are professional people,” he said. “They try to do their best. Sometimes they don’t succeed, then the town doesn’t succeed either.”

O’Connor plans on challenging the vote with a voter veto petition, which could overturn the new regulations. He plans to contact the counselors in his district and fellow tenants to gather signatures. The Amherst Home Rule Charter requires “a minimum of 5 percent of the registered voters as of the date of the most recent town election” to sign the petition for the council to reconsider its vote.

“They would have to listen to us, instead of, essentially listening to themselves, and if they listen to tenants, I think the outcome will be different,” O’Connor said.

Crossman echoed O’Connor’s belief that the council is failing to listen to the community. “Those people with the microphone are speaking from the lens that they look through and I don’t think that lens necessarily reflects the lens that everyone else looks through in this community.”

“As a body of majority homeowners, I think it’s important to understand the impact that that has on the people who will be most affected by this change,” Council Member Walker, an Amherst renter, stated.

The community has 14 days to file and collect signatures for the voter veto petition to have the new bylaw “temporarily suspended” until the town council reconsiders at the next regular town meeting.

“No bylaw is carved into stone, future councils can adjust this or adopt this as we’ve learned, but we need something to start us off,” Devlin-Gauthier said.

Bella Astrofsky can be reached at [email protected] and Alexandra Hill can be reached at [email protected]

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