Did Amherst’s Town Meeting vote in favor of housing discrimination? Reply

Property owners in Amherst will need to comply with new regulations governing rental properties. The motivation for the new regulations is to curb student rental properties, which some citizens feel are becoming a nuisance in the college town. Amherst is the home of UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College.

The question for me is: Are these measures a violation or an obfuscation of state and federal anti-discrimination laws?

Amherst Town Meeting voted in favor of two zoning amendments regarding multi-family properties. The amendments were proposed by the Amherst Planning Board and the Coalition of Amherst Neighborhoods, an organization of residents who view student housing as a blight on the community.

One amendment that was passed at Town Meeting requires that a special permit be obtained from the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) for residences converted from a single-family home to a multi-family home. What is more, the amendment also requires that the converted property be owner-occupied or have a resident manager.

The other amendment to Amherst’s zoning bylaw that was passed requires owners of duplexes that are not owner-occupied to get a special permit as well.

The bylaw may be perceived as discriminatory, however. Fair Housing law strictly prohibits discrimination. One Town Meeting member who spoke in favor of the zoning measure was cited in the Daily Hampshire Gazette as indicating that the bylaw sought to legalize housing discrimination when she said that, “requiring a special permit would guide people toward renting to families and more responsible tenants.”

As a REALTOR®, I know that guiding a landlord to rent to a family rather than someone who is single is known as steering and is illegal. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website, HUD.gov, “Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (Fair Housing Act), as amended, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status.”

There are some situations where the Fair Housing Act does not apply: “In some circumstances, the Act exempts owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units, single-family housing sold or rented without the use of a broker, and housing operated by organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.”

As a real estate sales professional, I can’t even describe a home as being located in a “family-friendly neighborhood” without breaking the law. Passing a bylaw that was written with the intent of the steering who rents should also be illegal.

Requiring a resident manager to supervise the house also seems like an invasion of a right to privacy. Most college students are 18 years old or older. They are legal adults. So it is reasonable to assume that they can be their own resident manager. Requiring a so-called house manager is also discriminatory as its intent is to curb the behavior of adults of a certain age.

Although the federal Fair Housing Act doesn’t recognize age discrimination, Massachusetts law does. According to the Massachusetts Fair Housing Statute, housing discrimination is prohibited on the basis of, “race, color, religious creed, national origin, sex, age, ancestry, veteran status, sexual orientation, marital status, children, handicap, and receipt of public assistance or housing subsidy in the selling, renting or leasing of housing accommodations, commercial space, or land intended for use as such.”

I don’t think that the solution lies with the supervision student rentals; the solution lies with the enforcement of existing laws and lease agreements between a tenant and a property owner that reflect existing town ordinances.

Town meeting rejected measures that would have required special permits for the creation of duplexes and for single-family rentals that are not owner-occupied.

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