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Amherst issuing fines to landlords over permits

AMHERST — The town is collecting fines from property owners who have failed to comply with Amherst’s rental registration bylaw, nearly six months after it began.

So far, $4,700 has been taken in from some of the 32 property owners who are in violation with the bylaw, said Building Commissioner Robert Morra.

The fines were issued after the town’s inspections department sent a reminder letter to 700 property owners in February and then a final letter in May warning them that stronger enforcement actions would begin, Morra said.

Already, Morra said the $100-per-day fines has reduced the number of property owners out of compliance to just 20.

“This has been a very successful enforcement action, with most of the properties coming into compliance shortly after receiving the notice of violation,” Morra said.

The rental permit system requires landlords to pay a $100 annual fee per property, submit a self-certification checklist and parking plans, and provide information about who owns and manages the property. Applications for permits were due Jan. 1, when the program began, and there were no financial penalties until now.

Those who needed this extra push to bring their properties into compliance represents a small fraction of the 1,200 rental properties in Amherst.

Town Manager John Musante said Tuesday that he is “tremendously pleased” that over 97 percent of those who own rental properties followed the rules that were adopted by Town Meeting in spring 2013.

“We’re at this point after repeated notices where they have failed to even contact us and never made out the self-certification checklist for health and safety,” Musante said.

On May 16, there were still 157 properties in violation, at which time Morra grouped these into two subsets and sent out violation notices. The fines continue daily until the property owner submits a rental permit application, Morra said.

Any violations that continue beyond 21 days will be filed with the Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown and a magistrate hearing will be scheduled to review the case. Morra said seven property owners, so far, are in this category, which means they will be summoned to court.

Musante said the program is having the desired effect of improving properties, from basic life safety issues on the interior for residents to exterior improvements that make neighborhoods better places, such as how and where vehicles are parked on properties.

“The bylaw is doing what we intended,” Musante said,

The number of rental properties is much smaller than the 1,570 estimated when the program began and was based on records provided by the assessors office.

This means less money will be collected for the program, which is covering the salaries for an administrative position to process permits and a housing code enforcement officer. But Musante said these salaries are also being supplemented through the town budget.

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