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Amherst: The Rental Market Overheats

A college town steps up to deal with a festering problem.

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Friday, May 03, 2013

Amherst, the quintessential college town, is a place where architecture and open space meld in a charming landscape, services are, by and large, excellent, and behavior is generally civil.

But Amherst has a growing problem: unsightly and sometimes unsafe rental housing, particularly housing rented to students. It’s not difficult to spot as you walk around the side streets near UMass and past scattered houses in other parts of town; the sagging balcony, the bashed-in lattice work under a porch, the rotting, uneven walkway, the flimsy, rusted fire escape. Less visually deteriorated houses may hold yet worse hazards: leaking around light fixtures, nonfunctioning smoke detectors, inadequate heating that tempts residents to resort to dangerous space heaters.

In an attempt to deal with the issue, the town has created the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods program. In the Town Meeting session that begins May 6, an article that forms one of the supports of that program will be voted on—an article containing a proposal to register all rental units in town and have them self-inspected, with the owners required to furnish assurances that they meet codes, and submit other information, including parking plans and emergency contact information, as required by the town. Permits must be renewed each year, and violators of permit conditions can be fined $100 a day until the violations are corrected.

The town is pressing ahead with the article in the face of opposition from some landlords, who insist that a proposed $100 registration fee to help cover the costs of permitting and maintaining records on the units would create an expense that would be passed on to tenants.

But proponents of the regulation say it’s necessary to protect the quality of life and the value of non-rental as well as rental property in town—and to protect tenants, including student tenants, from the hazards of living in poorly maintained housing.

 

The problem of unevenly regulated student housing in Amherst is not new. In 2001 the Advocate, with the cooperation of then-Amherst building inspector Bill Start, reported on the decrepit, sometimes dangerous living quarters occupied by students. In 1992, two students died in a fire in a house on North Pleasant Street near the town center because there was no second egress from a third-floor apartment; that tragedy haunted Start.

The town did not even know of the existence of many rental units. In 2003, over the objections of landlords, the Board of Health took a stab at initiating a rental registration program. But participation was reluctant; in recent years, fewer than 700 rental units have been registered in a town in which 5,011 were reported in the 2010 census.

Among the most neglectful landlords have been absentee owners. Our first report included the story of a Boston-area landlord whose student tenants arrived for the beginning of the school year to find the house they had arranged for condemned by the town. Amherst, it seemed, was known in the Valley and beyond as a place with an unregulated housing market heated up by UMass’ population of more than 20,000 students, and by its practice of overbooking, so that some students arriving each fall would find themselves facing the first few weeks of school with no place to live.

In the intervening years, the layer of investor-owned properties has grown. According to figures compiled by the town assessor—figures that are not large, but what they show makes an impact in the relatively small central area of Amherst—the number of homes converted from owner-occupied to non-owner-occupied rose from eight in 2009 to more than 20 in 2012 (the figure was not finalized at press time), an increase of 300 percent.

For many years, because of local residents’ irritation with raucous parties and back yards crowded with cars, the town has had a bylaw prohibiting more than four unrelated people from living together in one dwelling. Rather than solving the problems of overcrowding, however, the bylaw sometimes made students reluctant to contact the town about code violations for fear their housemates not named on the lease would be evicted in the midst of a semester’s courses and exams.

Evidence that landlords sometimes knew they had too many tenants came to light last winter when Lincoln Real Estate of 25 North Pleasant Street, owner of the Gilreath Manor rental units on Hobart Lane, was fined for violating the bylaw after a fire at Gilreath Manor brought the presence of supernumerary students to the town’s attention. Student tenants at Gilreath alleged that Kathryn Grandonico, listed with the state as resident agent for Grandonico Property Management of 25 North Pleasant Street, a company related to Lincoln Real Estate (Grandonico was also, incidentally, president of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce last year), was aware that more than four tenants were living in each of at least five units. The students said, Grandonico had instructed the extra people to move their beds prior to town inspections so the town would not see that the bylaw was being ignored.

According to a statement submitted to the town by UMass Legal Services attorney Carol Booth, who had several Gilreath tenants as clients, Lincoln Real Estate staff told the students when they first applied for rentals “that most units had five or-six tenants because the rent was high and it was easier to share among more tenants.”

Later, Booth wrote, “A number of tenants reported to me that earlier this fall they were contacted by ‘Nancy’ [a Lincoln employee] or ‘Kathryn’ who told them there were going to be inspections and they should move their beds so it wouldn’t look like anyone was living in the basement, and they should be sure they were not at home during the inspection... After the inspection, the tenants all received Bueno y Sano gift cards from the landlord—each apartment receiving the same number of gift cards as there were occupants... .”

Grandonico told the Advocate through a Lincoln Real Estate staff member that she had no comment. Lincoln has cooperated with the town by stepping up its compliance with the bylaw that limits the number of tenants to four.

 

Booth told the Advocate that landlord issues have been a frequent theme in her work over the past five years as an attorney with the university. “I watch students go out and rent apartments and live without heat, and until they show up in my office they don’t know they have a right to a certain amount of heat,” she said. “They pay for utilities when they don’t know it’s illegal [for them to have to pay] because it’s not in the lease.”

Amherst town manager John Musante said the requirement that rental units be registered is a start toward solving the problems of substandard housing in a town with a lively rental market—a market that will likely become more crowded when UMass implements plans to add 2,000 more undergraduates by 2020.

“We hope to address the issues that have been raised about the condition of some of the rental units,” Musante told the Advocate. “We’ve had concerns identified in multiple neighborhoods about the quality of some of those units, so this proposal seeks to establish a complaint-based self-inspection protocol . It’s about getting a good baseline first—having data about the location and basic character of each rental property.”

Registration would involve a fee of $100 per property, regardless of number of units, that would go to help pay the cost of the program. Asked if he agreed with complaints from some landlords that the fee would impose a hardship, Musante said, “No. it was a recommendation that I’ve agreed to from a working group that had property owners and landlords on it.” The system to be established if the article passes, he said, is “not too bureaucratic. Not too expensive.”

Booth said that in her view, what Amherst needs to come of age in its dealings with its substantial layer of rental housing—which, as Musante pointed out, makes an important contribution to its tax base—is information for both tenants and landlords about the rights and responsibilities of each. “People become landlords with no idea that they’re entering a business that’s highly regulated,” she said. “I think a lot more information would be very helpful.”•

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