Public Shares Diverse Views On Rental Registration Bylaw Revision

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Report On A Public Forum Of The Community Resources Committee, July 25, 2022

This forum was held over Zoom and was recorded. The recording will be available at the Community Resource Committee’s (CRC) website.

Present

CRC members: Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large, Chair). Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Pam Rooney (District 4), and Jennifer Taub (District 3). Also, co-sponsor of the bylaw revision proposal with Taub and Rooney, Councilor Michele Miller (District 1)

Staff: Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the council)

An audience of over 40 individuals, including landlords, tenants, and interested residents attended the community forum organized by the Community Resource Committee (CRC) to obtain input on the planned revision of the 2014 Residential Rental Permit Bylaw. Councilors Miller, Taub, and Rooney originally proposed updating the bylaw in March, and the CRC has discussed possible changes at six of its meetings since. In addition to this forum and subsequent planned listening sessions, the CRC is soliciting input on the Engage Amherst site and has received over 200 responses to its survey.

Changes the CRC is considering include:

  1. measures to ensure that all rental units adhere to accepted health and safety measures both inside and outside the building,
  2. implementation of a fair and equitable system for inspections that is not only complaint driven but also gives credit for good compliance to standards,
  3. ensuring that all rental properties apply for and receive a permit
  4. developing a fair fee structure for rental permits.

Miller added that additional goals are to meet the town’s climate action goals and to preserve neighborhoods. Over the past three months, the CRC has been examining the rental permit bylaws of other towns and compiling data received from the public survey. Attendees were encouraged to fill out the survey if they have not already done so. The committee is planning another community forum in the fall and would like to have a draft bylaw ready by the end of December.

Several tenants voiced a desire that landlords justify the rents charged. Anthony, who lives in the Boulders, said his rent has doubled over the past five years. He feels that landlord costs have not increased that much, and students have not been causing so much more damage to apartments to justify this increase. Mark Murdy wants tenants to be able to see how much of their rent was contributing to the mortgage, property tax, and upkeep of their units, and how much was profit for the landlord. Sasha Weiss wished that there would be some incentive for landlords to charge lower rent. Hanneke pointed out that rent control was not allowed in Massachusetts.

Ed van Bruggan said that he didn’t believe the new housing being constructed by UMass and private developers would bring down the cost of rentals in town, since, aside from a few affordable units, most of the new construction is for high end units.

Residents of neighborhoods with a substantial number of rentals cited absentee landlords who did not maintain their properties, exceeded occupancy guidelines, and did not intervene if tenants were noisy or improperly disposed of trash. They suggested a point system or “Yelp”- type rating for both landlords and apartments, so subsequent tenants could avoid bad situations and the town could more closely inspect problem units. However, with the tight housing market in town, several renters thought it would be unlikely that problem landlords would be unable to rent their units.

Murdy called attention to the power differential between landlords and tenants. Sophia Marx agreed that fear of retaliation could prevent some tenants from complaining about the conditions of their rentals. Stephen Korns, who has several student rentals and fraternities in his neighborhood said his neighborhood arranged a meeting to discuss issues with UMass and the nearby student residents, but little has changed. He said most of the complaints in his neighborhood are for excess noise, but he realizes that having the police respond may be threatening to some residents, especially those of color.

Several people recommended education for both landlords and tenants. Ira Bryck suggested informing potential landlords of the town’s regulations at the time of permit application. Tom Crossman said the 2014 bylaw did an admirable job of resolving some of the problems with absentee landlords who thought renting in Amherst was the “wild, wild west.” He suggested reaching out to landowners on regulations when distributing property tax bills. Dylan Nguyen was especially worried about international students not being aware of their rights as renters. Although Kent Higgins said that UMass legal services offered support to tenants in the past, even if they were not associated with UMass, Ben Weitz said that department is extremely understaffed currently.

As to fees for rental permits, Renata Shepard, who rents out one unit, thought fees should be based on the amount of rent charged, rather than being a flat fee regardless of the number of units permitted. Hilda Greenbaum cautioned against raising permit fees because landlords would pass the cost onto the tenants. She added that certain units, such as those rented under Section 8 (low-income housing) undergo rigorous annual inspections by the state, and do not need additional regulation by the town. She said that Town Manager Paul Bockelman did not plan to hire any more town staff to do inspections, so she did not see why extra fees were necessary.

Pearl Anne Margalit said that there is only one town employee overseeing 1000 rentals in town, but Crossman replied that there are actually 4.5 positions in town to oversee rental units, but that is still probably not sufficient. Myra Ross said the town needs to take into account how landlords care for their property when granting or renewing permits.

The community forum ended at 9:55 p.m. The CRC will use the input gathered at the three-hour meeting to formulate a new rental registration bylaw. Interested residents are invited to attend the CRC meetings on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month at 4:30 (on Zoom until at least September) and to submit comments on the Engage Amherst site. The site will be updated as the work progresses.

The CRC next meets on July 28 at 4:30 p.m. at https://amherstma.zoom.us/j/88192260693#success

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