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Steve Bloom: Amherst needs permitting system for rentals

Amherst needs a permitting system for residential rentals. It’s needed one for decades. It doesn’t need more bureaucracy, more unenforceable regulations and penalties. And it doesn’t need a “registration” system. It’s not just a matter of semantics, it’s a matter of survival.

It’s a matter of whether Amherst remains a stable attractive community in which to live and do business as well as a shopping and dining destination.

What’s the difference between a registration and permitting system? A permitting system has teeth while registration alone lacks real consequences for non-compliance. Call it a license or certificate or permit if you want, but the town, if it is to control its destiny, needs a legal mechanism that grants permission for landlords to rent — permission which can be revoked if our rules are blatantly broken and ignored, which sadly is too often the case now.

If done right, getting and keeping a permit to rent should be no more onerous than obtaining and renewing a driver’s license. A permitting system shouldn’t require mountains of red tape or armies of inspectors.

Actually, permits should not be contingent on inspections at all. With one full-time building inspector and approximately 5,000 rental units, the town simply doesn’t have the budget or manpower to mandate inspections. No one’s right to privacy will be invaded. Inspections should occur only after repeated complaints and reports of violations. Hardly the stuff of Big Brother.

A permitting system isn’t a radical step for Amherst. Most college towns have one, particularly those with institutions as large as the University of Massachusetts. State College, home of Penn State, has one, as does Newark, Del., host to the University of Delaware, among many others.

Worcester, Provincetown, Eastham, Haverhill and parts of Boston all have functioning permitting systems. A permitting system won’t prevent developers from getting financing from banks. As for the hubbub about having to pass the costs onto tenants, the cost for a permit should be minimal, no more than $100 annually, which comes out to less than $10 a month.

A permitting system isn’t anti-rental or anti-student. Rentals aren’t at risk. As long as UMass continues to greatly expand its enrollment without significantly increasing on-campus housing, the rental market in Amherst will remain robust.

Most landlords in Amherst are responsible, law-abiding homeowners, businessmen and women. But, as usual, there are a few bad apples ruining it for everyone. We now have a millionaire absentee landlord maintaining the fiction he’s living with seven undergraduates; another absentee landlord has been caught packing 14 students in a space where only four are allowed, then passing the blame and the buck to those tenants, while vociferously claiming ignorance of the situation when there’s a paper trail a mile wide implicating the landlord.

We have yet another absentee landlord who owns a property that for years housed a notorious underground bar. The same landlord brazenly ignores correspondence from the town. And why not? There are no real consequences because there is no mechanism to shut them down if they flout our regulations. A few hundred dollars in fines doesn’t deter these unscrupulous speculators from exploiting tenants, hogging precious town resources and detracting from the quality of life for all.

But the threat of having their permit pulled will. Mostly it will be just a threat. Having a permit revoked or not renewed should be a last resort. But for the first time, the town will have the power and ability to truly enforce our laws.

At the last Town Meeting, our representatives were promised a permitting system by both elected and non-elected leaders. If this promise is not honored, concerned residents will once again have to resort to citizen petition and formulate a permitting system to put to a vote as a general bylaw. A vote which incidentally doesn’t require a 60 percent super-majority, doesn’t include grandfathering and the provisions of which go into effect immediately.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Having served over 35 years as a planning and development director in Delaware, Roy Lopata is among the country’s most respected experts in the intricacies of permitting systems. He devised the permitting system operating successfully in Newark and consults with university towns across the country. He has no ax to grind. He just knows how it’s done. The Safe and Healthy Neighborhood Working Group should recommend he be retained to help us. Perhaps the town can use part of the $40,000 it has appropriated for yet another market study on housing.

There is no time to waste. A permitting system is the most pressing issue confronting Amherst. It is the foundation upon which all future development depends. Let’s do this now. And let’s do it right.

Steve Bloom lives in Amherst.

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