By George Ryan
Our Town and its elected bodies face numerous significant challenges, some of which I have described in two earlier posts. In my third post in this series, I discuss the impact of rental housing and a destination parking garage.
Rental Registration Bylaw. Since January 2014, owners of rental housing have been required to register with the Town on a yearly basis. They must secure a rental permit for each rental property that they own. The permit program makes clear who owns and manages rental properties and clarifies for the owners and renters existing health and safety codes, occupancy limits, and noise and nuisance bylaws.
The bylaw also gives the Town the authority to suspend a rental permit for “egregious and persistent non-compliance.” To the best of my knowledge, this has never happened, in large part because our Inspections Department simply does not have enough bodies to both administer the program and enforce it. Owners self-inspect their properties and Town inspectors become involved only if there is a complaint.
What we have seen since the program’s inception is a steady decline in the number of permits issued. In 2015, 1,281 permits were issued, but that number has fallen every year, to 1,150 in 2020. There is suspicion that this steady decline reflects a trend of landlords opting out of the program and not a decline in the actual number of rental properties.
After eight years, there is clearly interest in Town Hall and among a number of Councilors to revisit the Rental Registration Bylaw. What form this will take remains to be seen, but the underlying goal will probably be to require more regular and vigorous inspections of rental properties and a more robust enforcement system that will hold landlords accountable when they do not play by the rules. The challenge is that our system currently is a complaint-driven system, and for it to work, residents need to speak up when they see potential violations. Such a system is not very effective.
An inspection-driven system, while attractive, would face the obstacle of cost. The Town can revise the bylaw as much as it likes, but without adequate enforcement, the changes would not have much impact. But enforcement requires people and people cost money. Since the Town has just committed to hiring 12 new people to staff two new Town departments (CRESS and a Department of Equity and Inclusion), I think it is unlikely that there will be funds available in the budget for other staff hires.
One possible solution is to pay for new inspectors through an increase in permit fees. The problem with that is that most permits are taken out by individuals and a sizable increase would likely prove a financial burden to those landlords and lead to further reductions in the number of permits applied for. That would defeat the whole purpose of the program. And none of this actually addresses the deeper problem – how to discourage the conversion of single- and two-family homes into rentals in the first place. That is something I plan to address in a future post.
A destination parking garage. Given the previous Council’s vote to rezone the Town-owned lot behind CVS, at some point in the coming year there should be an RFP (Request for Proposals) to see if there is, in fact, any interest in the private sector in building a destination garage on that site. The RFP would require Town Council approval before its release.
One repeated objection has been that this garage is intended to provide parking for the new multi-unit apartment buildings downtown. This objection ignores the fact that such a use can be restricted (or even prohibited) through the Request for Proposals that the Council must approve. It also overlooks the repeated statement by the sponsors that this proposal has been driven by a desire to support the downtown business community and has been made in response to current and planned economic development in our downtown, including:
- an expanded and renovated Jones Library;
- improvements to the North Common;
- an outdoor performance shell on the South Common;
- The Drake, a live performance venue slated to open in March;
- a world-class independent cinema.
A destination garage is meant to encourage people to come downtown to shop, dine, see a film, attend a live music performance, hang out on the Town Common, or take the kids to Kendrick Park Playground. And if you are just coming downtown for a few quick errands, the first hour of parking could be free. The RFP could (and probably should) restrict the number of year-round spaces available for rent. It could even prohibit them outright, though I think that would be unwise.
And yes, there are legitimate questions about traffic and safe access into and out of the site. But without an RFP and the required traffic studies that would go with it, these questions can’t be properly addressed. A well-crafted RFP would go a long way to addressing this and other concerns of neighbors.
My hope is that a majority of Councilors support a dynamic and active downtown and are curious enough to see what might be possible through a public/private partnership. Our downtown business community is in need of all the support we can give it.