Sunday, May 19, 2013

Those Who Fail To Learn ...

 Ghosts of Christmas yet to come?

"Whereas:  There currently is a severe shortage of rental housing in the Town of Amherst, which shortage has been caused in part by the rapid increase in the population of the Town since 1970 resulting from its desirability as a place to live ...

Where have you heard that preamble before?  The controversial Town Meeting warrant article continues:

"This severe shortage of rental housing has led to a serious public emergency with respect to the rental housing available to a substantial number of citizens of the Town, which emergency is causing a serious threat to the public health, safety and general welfare of the citizens of the Town."

Selected excerpts from Article #29, Rental Registration Bylaw coning up Monday night?  No.  Article #64, Rent Control Act.  Narrowly defeated by only five votes, 116 to 111.  Monday, May 16, 1983.


Today's landlords should consider themselves lucky that Article #29 is so light on the touch, simply ensuring that minimum common sense health and safety codes are routinely enforced for the good of tenants and the neighborhood.

The only landlords being "punished" are the ones who deserve it!

Of course should Article #29 fail tomorrow night -- and I'm confident it will not -- a fallback article comes up on Wednesday (Article #38), a similar version of Rental Registration Permit system with the main difference being owner occupied units -- whether the rental aspect is an "accessory use" or primary use --  will be exempt from the regulations.

Architects of that less restrictive article also plan to amend #29 with that wording.  

Because  most of the problems of rowdy student behavior emanate from (absentee) non owner occupied rentals, it is tempting to support #38 over the more restrictive #29.

Although the Safe & Health Working Group intended for the General Bylaw to cover all rentals, a serendipitous mistake between revisions does exclude room rentals for up to 6 tenants in owner occupied units. 

And those mom-and-pop landlords who are also town meeting members are now far more likely to support Article #29, the original bylaw created by the Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods Working Group, already approved by the Town Manager, and unanimously supported by the Select Board, Planning Board and Finance Committee.

Tune in Monday night as Amherst Town Meeting takes another bite at the 30-year-old apple.  This time the majority will get it right!


Dr. Ed said...

Two things:

First, the Rent Control Ordinance was at least partially intended to protect tenants, i.e. students. I don't see this rental registry doing that at all.

Assuming that the town would even take the concerns of a student seriously (and I doubt it), what "whistleblower" protections are there for the student?

The slumlord will retaliate with impunity, "no trouble on my watch" UM administrators will retaliate against the student for "being a troublemaker" and whatever you want to say about these kids, they aren't stupid.

Everyone knows that this is intended to CONTROL the students, not to help them -- and I don't see anything that tenants get out of this. If you believe in the concept of a "social contract" then everyone has to get something and I don't see what the tenants get.

Second, you may remember what happened to Rent Control in Massachusetts nearly two decades ago. Statewide Referendum, just like the sales tax on beer. There are some very wealthy people in the rental housing business -- not in Amherst but elsewhere in the Commonwealth -- and should this ordinance pass, I would not be surprised to see a referendum to outlaw it.

If not that, then something similar to what was done with the Beer Keg Deposits where merchants, not wanting to deal with a confusing mosaic of municipal rules on deposits, got ABCC to step in and create a uniform one -- superseding the authority of Amherst, which really didn't have authority over kegs sold in Hadley anyway.

These management companies aren't going to want to deal with a license from each town and the rest -- and I think you are going to see a reaction from places you aren't anticipating it should this pass.

Which goes back to my first question -- what are the tenants getting out of this? Statewide, why would tenant advocacy groups want to support your ordinance?

Not what will future tenants get from having slumlords driven out of business and/or people prohibited from living in/renting the defective apartment, not the collective good of living in a happy, loving community where everyone can dance around the UN Flag and sing Kumbya, but what will the people living in the apartment RIGHT NOW get?!?!?!?

1: I don't see them getting anything - or any reason for tenant advocates to support this ordinance.

2: I can see landlords not wanting it -- they will view it the way you would if you had to register your car with EACH town you drove through -- a big hassle.

3: There are an awful lot of UM grads who really don't like your little town. Something like 85% remain in the Commonwealth, and which way would these people vote on a state wide referendum? "For Amherst" or "Against Amherst"?

Dr. Ed said...

Ed's proposed addendums -- if you want to be fair, this is what you need to add and/or have:

1: Pre-tenancy inspection. Much like a "certificate of occupancy" is required before a new house may be occupied, a "Certificate of Rental Tenancy" be required before each and every tenancy begins and the new tenants can move in. This certificate to be posted on the front door of the unit and state (a) when the tenancy begins and (b) the contact number of the landlord.

2: A 24-hour telephone contact number for the landlord or manager be visibly posted outside all non-owner/occupied apartments. Excepting units with management on site, this already is a state regulation and this merely requires those to post their phone numbers (which I believe all of them already do).

What this does is take enforcement out of the State Sanitary Code and make it an explicit requirement that is part of the registration.

3: No deduction from a security deposit may be made without the approval of a town official.

This is a big one -- some (not all) of the local management companies do all their routine maintenance out of tenant security deposits -- they routinely keep all the deposit and then try to gouge the former tenant for upwards of a few thousand more. For normal "wear & tear" and stuff that isn't damage.

4: Town subrogation of tenant "warranty of habability" and "repair & deduct." This is a promise to students (and tenants) that if they come to the town asking for help with an apartment, they won't wind up homeless on the street. If it is something for which the unit should be condemned but is easily fixable (e.g. broken furnace) and the landlord can't/won't do it, the Town does it, at town expense, with the property securing repayment.

If the unit can't be lived in (at least for a while) then the TOWN finds the tenant's alternative housing and in the case of UM students, also pays for transportation to/from campus. All of these costs, per ordinance, become a lien on the property if the town doesn't get its money back.

5: Presumption of retaliation. All of the Housing Court and statutory presumptions (and limitations) are copied verbatim into the ordinance.

6: Presumption of UM Judicial Retaliation. As a condition of continued receipt of information regarding student behavior, UMass is required to adopt the same presumptions of retaliation.

7: Elimination of arrest for noise. While not directly related, three important reasons for doing this:

(A) This is clearly giving the students something - and with all of the citation information going to UMass anyway, there's really no need anymore for an arrest. Not for noise itself -- assaulting an officer is something quite different.

(B) This alone will tone down a lot of the hostility between the kids & the cops -- and you really need the students on your side in dealing with these slumlords.

(C) Enough attorneys whom I respect have, over beers, stated the illegalities involved in arresting someone for this ordinance that I believe them.

There is the "bailment" issue - arresting someone for a fine-only offense if the accused is willing to post the fine as bail (e.g. speeding tickets before decriminalization) as well as the state's decriminalization laws themselves. There are issues with both the MA & US Constitution here -- and it gets into some of the issues of one party in a civil suit having the other arrested to ensure payment of a judgment should the other loose the case -- which isn't allowed anymore.

Dr. Ed said...

As to pre-occupancy inspections -- North Adams has been doing it for years. Pre-occupancy is the easiest way to do it -- and Boston has had a de-facto policy of doing this for a while, sending all of its inspectors over to the student neighborhoods on move-in day.

Also, if you had a brightly colored "Certificate of Rental Occupancy" stickers and changed color each year -- and had the media & UMass announce what color "this fall's stickers are", the parents would enforce this ordinance for you.

Tell the parents that there is supposed to be a Town-Issued decal on the front door, that the sticker means that someone has made sure that the apartment is safe for their kids to live in, and whom to call if it isn't there -- and they will insist on one being there.

Tell the students and more than a few of *them* will insist on it being there -- they often are more ignorant than irresponsible and they don't know that these units are unsafe.

There is also a benefit to the APD that may be overlooked -- this would apply to ALL units including Section 8 and "affordable" ones. An officer seeing a sticker with a current/recent date will immediately know that someone new is living there, and also that who used to isn't. This could save officer's time as they keep track of where certain folks are and move to. It also would give them probable cause in situations where someone quite suspicious claims to be "moving in" but there *isn't* a sticker on the door.

Dr. Ed said...

Having the town assume tenant "repair and deduct" rights and paying for alternative housing -- this may seem extreme but isn't.

It is only in the cases where there are (a) serious defects that make the unit unlivable and (b) the landlord will not do anything and/or can't even be found.

This is the exception and not the rule, but I (housing authority) once spent a Friday afternoon with the Amherst inspector trying to figure out how to get a woman's toilet out of her bathtub and back where it belonged. (She had 3 children and this situation had evolved out of an earlier one involving a clogged toilet.)

Having the town step up front with the cash (more likely just guaranteeing that the tradesguys will get paid) does three things.

First, the town has credit where the tenant may not -- and the town has legitimacy where a student may not. The latter is significant -- it is one thing for a "couple girls from Jersey" to tell an oil burner guy that they have made repeated attempts to contact the landlord but he hasn't responded -- it is something else for someone whom the tech personally knows to say this.

A slumlord knowing that either *he* can pay Larry's Oil himself or reimburse the town for it is far more likely to pay Larry directly than knowing that the Jersey Girls might sue him for what they had to pay Larry.

Second, by having this as part of the ordinance, it allows the Town to put it "out to bid" and get a list of vendors that complies with the state ethics laws. Right now, even if the town (or housing authority) agrees to pay for the service, even if it is a small amount of money (e.g. just put the damn toilet back on its mounting), the ethics laws get messy.

This could even be a service to small landlords -- if the town bid a list of trades and people willing to be on 24 hour call for emergencies, this would be public information it could provide to landlords (and homeowners) who suddenly find themselves needing to call a plumber at 2AM (and don't know any).

Third, people rarely go to court -- and low income people even less. Hence while tenants actually HAVE legal rights, few of them know it and even fewer will exercise them.

Slumlords know this. They also know that the town can put a lien on their property if need be and that is a much greater threat.

Fourth, as to providing housing for those living in units a town condemns, a Housing Court judge once told me that is an absolute requirement for the municipality -- that the town has to do it at town expense. He's a judge -- I assume he knows what he's talking about.

Transportation to/from UMass in situations where you have to place the students out-of-town -- that is something they could recover in a lawsuit, something the town could on their behalf, but if you put it into the ordinance then it can just become a lien on the property.

This is what a town would do were it trying -- honestly trying -- to consider the UM students to be "residents" and trying to build the legitimacy of trying to ask things from them in return.

Anonymous said...

Holy Crap, Ed.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Ed is seeing red. Chill out, bro!

Anonymous said...

A learned fool

Tom McBride said...

I want the one in the top center.