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Amherst Town Meeting gets tough on rentals

Addressing what residents say is a growing crisis in neighborhoods impacted by properties rented to students, Town Meeting adopted several measures that will be in place until a rental permit system is considered next spring.

Fall Town Meeting concluded a 19-article warrant last week by requiring so-called converted dwellings to go through the special permit process under the Zoning Board of Appeals, mandating these dwellings have an owner or resident manager on site and strengthening the nuisance house bylaw so that, besides fines, response costs by officials could be charged to property owners.

The articles, which were written by the Planning Board, Planning Department and Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, demonstrated a full-fledged community effort to combat the problems associated with rentals, said Janet Keller of Precinct 1 and a member of the coalition.

“They worked together to get effective measures in place to curb neglect and exploitation of commercial rentals and strengthen multigenerational neighborhoods,” Keller said.

Maurianne Adams of Precinct 10, a spokeswoman for the coalition, said she was pleased with the collaboration with town officials and the success in dealing with the rapid acceleration of rentals that threaten multi-generational neighborhoods, property values and residential safety.

These problems, she said, need to be addressed through zoning, as well as other municipal enforcement, a better code of conduct at the University of Massachusetts and construction of new off-campus housing.

The coalition, said Steven Bloom, of Precinct 10, is dedicated to promoting and preserving a balance between single-family homeowners and rental properties.

“What we are asking is that large-scale absentee landlords provide a minimal amount of supervision of their properties, the supervision that teenagers on their own for the first time need and deserve for their own safety and well-being and which if they lived on-campus in dorms would normally and properly have,” he said. “In the scheme of things, it’s a small price to do business here.”

Not every article was approved by Town Meeting. A Planning Board proposal that would have required special permits to rent all single-family homes and a coalition-written article to put limits on demolishing existing homes were turned down. But the action demonstrated a concern in the community that is leading to the creation of a rental permit system, which Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe assured voters will be presented to annual Town Meeting.

In the meantime, coalition member Elissa Rubinstein said enforcement of current bylaws is necessary, though the Coalition understands that police and inspections can’t handle all complaints. This is what prompted residents on Fearing Street to supplement them this fall with private security details.

”We encourage landlords, especially of rentals that have had nuisance house calls, to share in this expense and hire security guards to oversee their properties, ideally by this spring,” Rubinstein said.

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