Amherst panel considers calls for more rental oversight


Staff Writer
Monday, August 01, 2022

AMHERST — Amherst’s rental permitting should offer more transparency to those who rent homes and apartments in town, and ensure that landlords are treating people fairly, according to some suggestions for improving the decade-old system.

For University of Massachusetts students Mark Murdy and Dylan Nguyen, who spoke to the Community Resources Committee during a public hearing Monday evening, landlords should be required to attend a basic course on renting, as well as providing itemized bills to tenants so they know what their rent payments are going for.

Having such protocols in place is something that longtime resident Myra Ross said she would support after once being a renter before owning her own home.

“There are some people really taking advantage of renters,” Ross said, asserting that some tenants are being gouged, while other properties are not being adequately kept up.

The hearing comes as town councilors are in the process of updating the regulations, adopted by Town Meeting in 2013, so that safe and healthy housing is available to all renters, and the potential for deleterious effects of these properties on neighborhoods is minimized.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub, who sits on the Community Resources Committee, said the idea is to move from a system that has been in place since 2014 that is exclusively complaint driven to one that will allow officials more regular looks at properties. The problem with the current system, she said, that some fear retaliation if they report problems to the town.

Other issues with the program include a lack of enforcement, and that the town has no penalty for an individual or a company that doesn’t get a permit, Taub said.

District 1 Councilor Michele Miller, who is co-sponsoring proposed changes to the rental permitting system, said the objectives are to establish a clear licensing program, address climate action goals for the town, and borrow from models already in place in other college towns.

Councilors got feedback from some of the 32 in attendance at the virtual meeting, with 80 residents already completing online surveys available through the Engage Amherst website. The meeting also used a system in which people could anonymously register their sentiment toward comments being made.

Many residents asked for more stringent rules than what have been in place.

Ira Bryck of Strong Street said he would support an educational course for property owners to go through before they could get a permit from the town.

Alex Kent of North Prospect Street said an inspection should automatically be triggered by a violation, such as a nuisance house ticket from police. That would give incentive to landlords to better take care of properties and to more carefully screen those they are renting to.

The challenge with enforcement is whether it’s possible to have enough staff to do this work, said Pearl-Anne Margalit of Grantwood Drive. “There’s so much to be done,” Margalit said.

Others disagreed with making the regulations more stringent.

Renata Shepard of Justice Drive, who rents another property in town, said Amherst shouldn’t be adding rules to ones already in place across the state. “When a tenant does have a problem, they complain,” Shepard said.

 While some speakers appealed to the  town to offer incentives for lowering rents, Hilda Greenbaum of Montague Road, whose family handles several rentals in town, said adding bureaucracy will only mean passing on costs to renters.

“I’d be very careful about the whole thing of an escalating scale,” Greenbaum said.