Monday, December 31, 2012

Local Story Of The Year

Safe & Healthy Neighborhood Committee:  Rob Morra Building Commissioner, Tim Nelson AFD Chief, Stephanie O'Keeffe Select Board Chair, Rt: David Ziomek Asst Town Manager 

It all started with a mid-September brief entry in the Amherst Police Department weekend logs, a sort of administrative notation of the type rarely reported by the Daily Hampshire Gazette.  But with a highly recognizable business name combined with a palpable sense of urgency,  I found it utterly fascinating:

"Firefighter Mike Roy (Fire Prevention Officer) received information that Lincoln Realty had warned the residents that an inspection was imminent and that they needed to assist in hiding code violations. I assisted with contacting the DA's office and the Clerk of Courts seeking an administrative warrant to enter the apartment for inspection."

My reliable AFD source confirmed the existence of a revealing email to town officials sent out on the day of the September 13 fire, clearly describing an orchestrated effort by apartment complex owner and then President of the Amherst Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Kathryn Grandonico, to cover up the existence of illegal basement bedrooms in the 14-unit  Gilreath Manor apartment complex.

Illegal for two reasons:  the space is not Health Department approved for human habitation (and contained deficiencies in fire and carbon monoxide detection); and with the two illegal basement bedrooms the total number of students occupying the single-family unit exceeded the 22-year-old town bylaw prohibiting more than four unrelated housemates per unit.

My public document request for the student's email took longer than the ten-day response time required by law, and was not fully complied with since it did not contain any of the follow up responses by town officials to Hannah, the jittery UMass student. But the document clearly illuminated a cover up ... at least on the part of the apartment complex owner.

Like that other infamous cover up from 40 years ago, it's not the original "two bit" act that sparks the blinding spotlight of exposure, but the after-the-fact attempts to cover it up.

If Ms. Grandonico had simply fessed up to an age old lucrative practice of packing more renters into a unit than allowed by law with a promise it would not happen again, the story would never have seen the light of print (not that my bricks and mortar friends have given it all that much coverage to date).

Now, however,  it has become a major test case:  Will the town be able to enforce the unrelated tenant zoning bylaw with $100/day fines, or can the landlord simply deflect responsibility by blaming the tenants?

The answer will decided the fate of Town Manager John Musante's "Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods" initiative.   The SHN committee, a who's who of heavy hitters in town government, is working on a bylaw proposal for spring Town Meeting requiring rental registration.

And this sweeping bylaw would NOT grandfather existing rentals.  This promises to be a battle as epic as the 1999 "Smoking Ban in Bars War" when Amherst, over bitter opposition of business owners, led the way on what is now common practice. 

Thus the outcome to my 2012 story of the year will be a critical component for the 2013 issue of the year.


Matt said...

While the University really needs to get on the ball and build more dorms -- which they could do over any opposition from the town -- it does not seem like the town does anything to alleviate the housing shortage. The collapse of the Gateway Project and the town's focus on money pits like that golf course instead of revenue generating real estate developments. UMass has been there for 150 years -- the town's ought to realize it's not going anywhere.

Larry Kelley said...

I wish all my Anons were as sagacious as you.

Dale said...

I would be curious to know how much enforcement actually takes place with this type of violation and others. It sometimes appears as if the issues are brought to light then delayed long enough for everyone to forget that there was an issue. Are they simply swept under the carpet, or are the penalties actually executed to prevent history from repeating itself? I've never seen a town so divided as Amherst where the good of the town is all to often pushed aside for the betterment of single individuals or groups. I've lived in this area my whole life and in Amherst for the last 14 years and I still struggle to understand the mentality. It might be just me and maybe the Amherst community is just a little to politically correct for me.

Larry Kelley said...

That's pretty much the way it used to be Dale. This time, however, things will be different.

Because, people are mad as Hell and they're not going to take it anymore.

Anonymous said...

Landlords, in this town, have for years~30 that I am aware of~been allowed by having authorities ignore documented concerns of violations of housing codes to just keep breaking them! DH Jones for instance~property they own managed by Kamins~has been reported to the Board of Health, Amherst, for mold contamination, mildew in their carpets,& questionable air quality, yet ignored, time after time. I think this phenomenon is just another sad example of money speaking louder than health, or safety, of the individual(s) renting these living quarters. :(

Dr. Ed said...

What used to bother me the most when I was with the Housing Authority were the desperate voicemail messages from students who thought that the "Housing Authority" had authority over housing -- and went down the options until they got to the inspector, which was me.

"Water pours through the ceiling every time it rains and the landlord says he doesn't have to do anything about it until we leave next summer." "The furnace isn't working and the company won't send anyone to look at it because the landlord hasn't paid them for the last three times they were out here." "Is it true that the landlord doesn't have to have a working furnace in a rental building?"

For those of you who wonder why I am so anti-Amherst, this is a good portion of it. If any other group were treated in this manner - if it were, say, African Americans instead of UM Students, the s**t would have "hit the fan" long ago and this stuff would not be tolerated.

But students aren't considered people, and thus....