Town Supports Rental Licenses

New Regulations Force Property Owners to Register Rental Homes in Edgartown; Officials Act to Ensure Safe Housing

By MANDY LOCKE

Edgartown officials will soon get their foot in the door of every rental property in town, the result of a selectmen-endorsed regulation which forces property owners to license rental properties and allow inspectors to ensure dwellings meet state habitation codes.

"This problem has gone on far too long a period of time. We have no control over how many people live in a house and the conditions of the house," said selectman Fred B. Morgan during a selectmen's meeting Tuesday, moments before a unanimous vote to support the board of health's adoption of regulations that mandate rental-house registration.

Board of health agent Matthew Poole asked for the selectmen's support in crafting a set of regulations which borrow largely from a program in practice in Yarmouth for over 20 years.

"This would be a significant improvement in ensuring safe housing," Mr. Poole told selectmen Tuesday afternoon.

The town has long felt impotent to do anything about substandard rental properties. Health and zoning inspectors acknowledge that overcrowded houses with an array of potentially hazardous conditions are common in Edgartown. But without an invitation from tenants or an administrative court order, town agents cannot enter questionable properties.

The nagging problem became a glaring deficiency in early October, when a fire destroyed a Curtis Lane home housing 14 Brazilians. The three-bedroom, one-bathroom home reportedly had no smoke detectors. House residents said they were lucky to escape with the clothes on their backs.

"It's really criminal," Mr. Morgan said of the Curtis Lane fire. "Hopefully these regulations will help us eliminate a calamity in the future."

Instead of waiting for voters to adopt bylaws creating the program at the annual town meeting, selectmen supported the immediate adoption of licensing rental properties through a board of health regulation. The board has the power to immediately adopt rules that protect the public health.

While some officials preferred delaying adoption until they could gauge voter support at a town meeting, a team of real estate brokers from Sandpiper Rentals urged officials to act immediately.

"As brokers, we see some pretty horrific things," said company owner and broker Sharon Purdy. "If there is a proposal before the town, people suddenly sit up and pay attention. It brings much more teeth to the issue. That in and of itself will eliminate some of the problems."

Mrs. Purdy said she and her agents commonly visit potential rental properties with no functioning smoke detectors, inadequate means of exit and too many beds in a bedroom.

"It simply doesn't matter what the agent says. We can refuse to list them, but the landlord will go elsewhere or list it himself," Mrs. Purdy explained.

The state of Massachusetts mandates that dwellings must minimally comply with more than 30 pages of detailed regulations for legal habitation. The state sanitary code dictates everything from adequate square footage for a bedroom and electric wiring standards to trash disposal and door locks.

Health agents like Mr. Poole find themselves with clear-cut rules and no means to enforce them. Tenants, particularly foreign workers, fear eviction or deportation if they call attention to substandard living conditions. Courts demand strong evidence of code violations before issuing an administrative search warrant. Edgartown district court magistrate Thomas Teller said he recalls only four such warrants being issued in his 39 years working in the system.

"It will probably be more difficult in the future [to get search warrants]. We've already gotten the easy ones," Mr. Poole said.

If Edgartown follows Yarmouth's model, property owners will have to register rental units with the town's housing inspector. The housing inspector will then visit the property, checking for any potential violations before issuing a license.

Mr. Poole expects the housing inspector position to be financially self-sustaining.

The town of Yarmouth collects a fee of $30 per application, and failure to register or failure to comply with the code carries penalties starting at $50 for first offenses, $100 for second offenses, and $200 for third offenses. Each day that a problem is not corrected constitutes a new violation.

Mr. Poole estimates there are between 1,500 to 2,000 rental units in Edgartown. Inspecting all of them will take time, he said; the inspector in Yarmouth generally evaluates four properties a day.

Mrs. Purdy asked that real estate brokers also face financial penalties for listing properties not in compliance with the new regulation.

The board of health will begin to craft the regulation later this month under the guidance of town counsel.

Voters will be asked at the annual town meeting in the spring to approve funding for the creation of a housing inspector position.

"If we can raise the qualifications for these properties, we will be head and shoulders above other communities," Mrs. Purdy said. "No one will lose with this."