Students at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who choose not to live in on-campus facilities like the Patterson dorm in the school’s Southwest residential area (pictured above) often rent off-campus housing within the town of Amherst. Problems caused by rowdy students living off-campus spurred the rental registration proposal currently being debated in the community.

An Amherst group is putting the brakes on a plan to register rental properties after hitting a snag with landlords.

For the last four years, a committee of local landlords, tenant activists and town officials has been meeting to formulate a rental registration plan aimed at addressing overcrowding, noise and other issues that arise at rental properties. But landlords in the community, which is home to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Amherst College, fear that the plan creates an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy to deal with and saddles them with more expenses.

Under the rental registration proposal, landlords would have to pay annual registration fees and have their properties inspected every five years. The proposed bylaw also includes a provision that would allow community members to file a complaint with the town about a particular property and landlord, and makes the landlord subject to fines if the issues are not satisfactorily addressed.

Local landlords oppose the proposal, and in a recent newsletter the Small Property Owners Association, a Cambridge-based group of landlord activists, called the proposal “back-door rent control.” SPOA contends that the registration would drive landlords out of business and encourage tenants to file complaints about their landlords.

Thomas Coish, a member of the committee, said SPOA is using “scare tactics” and that the committee has attempted to accommodate every concern of the landlords. At one point, the committee even eliminated a landlord licensing requirement, said Coish.

“The purpose of this bylaw is to give the town a tool, which does not create any new substantive rights or laws, but gives the town a way to encourage landlords to respond to problems when they arise,” said Coish, who teaches and works at the UMass commuter services office.

Local landlords, on the other hand, argue that there are laws and regulations already in place to deal with tenant, neighborhood and landlord disputes.

“Realistically, it looks like a bureaucracy that the town doesn’t need and our business really doesn’t need,” said Steve Walczak, a local property manager and president of the Pioneer Valley Housing Association.

The committee is contemplating halting any decision on the matter until after Town Meeting, which begins April 24.

The latest feud comes after years of negotiations and meetings to come up with the rental registration plan, which would have to be voted on by the board of selectmen and then sent to the state Legislature for approval.

The committee considering the plan is part of a larger problem-solving partnership between local police, landlords, town officials and the university. The partnership was created roughly five years ago to address neighborhood problems – including overcrowding in apartments and loud, rowdy parties – mainly arising from UMass students living off-campus.

Several committees were spun off from the main one, including a group that was charged with finding ways to provide more and current information about rental properties, including ownership.

The committee looked at various proposals that had been introduced in college towns in states like Nebraska and Vermont, said Coish. Both Coish and Walczak said they know of no other Bay State community that has a rental registration plan in place.

Throughout the years, the committee came up with various recommendations, some of which sparked controversy.

Over a year ago, when the registration plan was unveiled, there was an outcry from landlords who said the committee did not have good landlord representation, said Coish.

At that point, the 10-member committee was reconstituted to include four landlords, said Coish. The new committee, which included Walczak, voted to remove the license requirement.

“That was an immediate concern,” said Walczak, explaining that the license could be revoked.

‘Unreasonable’ Expectations

Now Walczak and other landlords are nervously eyeing the annual registration fee that is included in the bylaw. While there has been talk of charging landlords $20 or $25 each year, the actual proposal does not include a dollar amount, said Walczak.

“The annual fee amounts were never discussed,” said Walczak, who added that it’s up to selectmen to determine the fee.

“We see this as a [potential] cash cow to the town” at the expense of landlords, he said.

Walczak also takes issue with the two-page registration form that the landlords would be required to complete. According to Walczak, the forms, which include questions about trash pick-up, rents and room sizes, are “very invasive.”

In addition, landlords are even more concerned about the fines and the complaint process that are part of the proposal.

According to Walczak, a landlord can be fined for a variety of reasons: not registering, a noise or sanitary code, or other problems emanating from one of their rental units.

Taking a liberal interpretation of the law, Walczak said the fines could be as high as $1,000 a day.

Furthermore, the town’s board of selectmen could have a hearing if a complaint arises and then the housing court or another court would have another hearing. That would force the landlord to hire lawyers and incur expenses for multiple hearings, said Walczak.

Walczak said it is unfair to require a landlord to attend a hearing before a board of selectmen that is not “versed” and experienced in those type of issues.

“We have a housing court in this county where professional mediation is offered,” said Walczak.

But Coish and others feel that the registration plan offers the town ways to deal with landlords and tenants in a less adversarial way, without involving police intervention.

It’s not uncommon for police to cite tenants for noise violations, for example.

Coish said that, under the plan, the town would notify landlords if a complaint was filed and the landlord would have time to address the issue. Only if the landlord ignored the complaint could the matter be brought before selectmen for a hearing, he said.

Still, Walczak insists that there are laws already in place to deal with complaints about landlords and rental properties. Amherst has laws prohibiting excessive noise and keg parties, and properties can be inspected if a neighbor or tenant complains, said Walczak.

If problems exist between students and neighbors, UMass should be taking a more active role in producing and enforcing a code of conduct for students living off-campus instead of putting the responsibility on landlords, according to Walczak.

“To expect the landlord to correct problems that the police and town government can’t is very unreasonable,” said Walczak.

Amherst Landlords Crash Rental Registration Party

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 4 min