Rental inspections may get major overhaul in Amherst

  • Amherst is considering a change to its rental inspection process that would require inspections of all 5,000-plus units such as these apartments twice a decade. file photo

Staff Writer
Monday, August 14, 2023

AMHERST — All of the town’s more than 5,000 rental units would be inspected at least twice a decade for building and health code compliance rather than waiting for a complaint to come in before sending an inspector to investigate under a proposed revamp of rules first implemented a decade ago.

The proposed new bylaw would eliminate the current complaint-driven system that allows property owners and landlords to self-certify that their homes comply with building and health codes, replacing it with what backers say is a more pro-active version requiring inspections by a town employee. If approved, the changes would likely increase the workload for municipal code enforcement staff.

The move to town inspections should improve the safety and habitability of all rental housing in Amherst, At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said in a memo to the council.

“Every rental unit, looking at those regulations, would get inspected at least once every five years,” Hanneke, who chairs the council’s Community Resources Committee, told the Town Council during its first reading of the bylaw and the new regulations Monday.

The council subcommittee, which had spent more 16 months crafting a replacement of the decade-old rental permitting bylaw, is unanimously endorsing the changes it is bringing after consulting with Building Commissioner Rob Morra and Jon Thompson, the senior code enforcement officer.

The Town Council referred the proposal to its Governance, Organization and Legislation committee to report back within 45 days and for the Finance Committee to review a possible fee schedule. The fee structure, for applications and inspections, would be recommended by Oct. 16.

If the new bylaw is adopted, it would go into effect next April for the 1,258 rental properties in Amherst, containing 5,134 residential units, based on rental permit data. Those range from single-family homes to mixed-use buildings and apartments.

While inspections would be done at least every five years, some properties would be done more frequently, such as those subject to complaints or responses under Amherst’s nuisance house bylaw.

In the memo to the council, Hanneke said the major changes, if adopted, would be phased in over five years.

She said three notices of a violation within three years would allow Morra to suspend or revoke the permit for a property to be rented. Additional enforcement mechanisms and mandated inspections would be required under the nuisance house bylaw.

“We’ve really tailored the rental registration permitting to health and safety code enforcement, building codes, health codes and all of that, but we recognize that nonbuilding code nuisances can be a harbinger of issues related to a property,” Hanneke said.

The rental permitting bylaw ensures that non-dorm rentals that might be on University of Massachusetts property are also inspected, such as the Fieldstone project on Massachusetts Avenue.

Three new inspectors will be needed, based on Morra’s estimates.

The current bylaw, adopted by Town Meeting in 2013, requires the town’s residential rental properties to be permitted annually, with self-certification checklists provided to the town by property owners and landlords to show that a property is in compliance. But the bylaw doesn’t mandate regular inspections. Examinations of rental properties, including those where college students reside, are typically driven by complaints from tenants or neighbors received at Town Hall.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub said inspections every five years isn’t onerous, but would make sure that all housing stock is meeting a level of safe and healthy standards. The existing complaint-driven process has allowed some properties not fit for human habitation to slip through the cracks.

“We wanted to perhaps err on the side of caution,” Taub said. “We were advised that five years was a good place to start, and we could always revisit it.”

The bylaw will make apartments safer for occupants, said District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam.

“When things are done properly, lives are saved, buildings are saved,” Pam said. “It’s very important this legislation gets passed.”

“This is essential if we are to be a really forward-thinking college town,” Pam added. “We have to ensure that we’re doing our best to maintain safe housing for students to live in.”

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, who chairs the Finance Committee, said a study of the application and inspection fees options needs to be done and he worries the town is creating a stronger program when it doesn’t have enough staff and hears perennial concerns about the condition of roads and sidewalks.

“This is a significant financial change for the town,” Steinberg said, “For us to adopt it without recognizing that significance is not doing our job as councilors.”

Last year, the council agreed to adjust the $100 flat fee per rental property, under which single-family homes pay the same amount as a large-scale apartment complexes. Now, a property with a maximum of six apartment units, with at least one unit occupied full time by the owner, will continue to pay $100, but for all other parcels, no matter how large, the annual fee is $250.

Taub said it has been hoped that UMass would be able to support the program, as well.

“They have such an interest since so many of their students starting sophomore year move off campus,” Taub said. “We think they would want to know their students are living in safe and healthy houses and apartments off campus.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.