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Editorial: Town needs stronger grip on landlords

Lincoln Realty recently agreed to pay $2,400 in fines for illegal use of its apartments. The town discovered the company was leasing at least five of its units to more than four unrelated people. That’s a violation of the town’s zoning bylaws.

The violation was discovered by firefighters during a minor blaze at Gilreath Manor on Hobart Lane in September, when beds and other evidence of tenancy were discovered in basement areas, showing that five or six people were living in each of the units. The building is owned by Peter Grandonico of Grandonico LLC.

The penalty comes as Amherst ponders whether it is exerting enough control over apartment rentals. We believe it can do more to safeguard tenants and the public without harming the ability of property owners to earn returns on their investment. At the least, it should shore up a rental-unit registration system. Depending on the will of Town Meeting, even tougher requirements may lie ahead for landlords.

Grandonico’s lawyer, Lawrence Farber, tried to blame tenants at Gilreath Manor for violating the rules without the landlord’s knowledge. But a hearing proved otherwise, leading the chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals, Eric Beal, to angrily suggest steeper fines were in order.

It was agreed that the board should not attempt to supersede the agreement reached between Building Commissioner Robert Morra and Farber. Still, it left Beal dissatisfied. Referring to the rent money Lincoln Realty had been collecting from the extra tenants, he said, “If (they are) not penalized sufficiently, they’ll have gotten paid for violating the law.”

The fine was accompanied by a 10-point agreement that calls for safety improvements and better renting practices.

It’s good Lincoln Realty was made to pay and change its practices, and that the disregard for the town bylaw was brought to light. Unfortunately, it took a fire to make it happen. The town would have had no right to inspect the property otherwise, aside from a health or safety complaint by a tenant. As it turned out, the fire wasn’t caused by the violation, and safety hazards were not discovered.

Still, such a flagrant disregard of the zoning bylaw fuels the argument, advanced by some, that landlords are making money in Amherst without concern for the town’s well-being. Residents have complained mightily about disturbances by student renters who party noisily at night, dump trash in their yards, cram cars on small lots and pile porches high with old furniture and debris. There have been calls for landlords to take more responsibility for the effects their business has on the town.

The Gilreath Manor case also gives impetus for imposing the rental-unit registration system the town’s Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group is preparing. It plans to have a proposal for Town Manager John Musante by March 1. Musante then will tweak it to get it ready for spring Town Meeting voters.

The health department attempted to establish a similar system in 2003, but a lack of enforcement provisions has resulted in only 700 properties being listed. The current proposal needs teeth the current one lacks. Going beyond registration to requiring permits could provide that. A registration process won’t stop a landlord from breaking the rules, but it at least would give the town a record of who is leasing out housing in town and make it clear to property owners that there are regulations to be followed. A permit requirement would go further and provide the threat of losing the right to do business in town.

Town officials, like Select Board chair Stephanie O’Keeffe, a member of the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods group, expect such a system will help ensure that safety measures like smoke detectors and proper exits are in place. Neighbors mainly want someone — in addition to the offenders — to be held accountable when partying tenants keep them up late with noise or urinate and toss empty beer cups in their yards.

Tensions over these matters are simmering now as it’s the lull between the warm-weather college party seasons. But the full boil is not far from the surface as further evidenced by the recent protest on Lincoln Avenue over the demolition of an historic barn by an out-of-town landlord. Though residents say they wanted to see the old structure preserved for its historical significance, they made it clear an accompanying worry is that the owner wants to expand his rental property at the expense of the ambiance of their street.

The town’s regulators seem to have gotten the message that these concerns should be kept front and center.

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