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Hanover Approves Ordinance for Rental Housing

Hanover — After at least 10 drafts in more than 25 years, Hanover at last has a rental housing ordinance on the books.

Last week, the Selectboard voted 4-1 — Athos Rassias was absent — after its second public hearing on the subject to approve the town’s first rental housing ordinance, which requires all rental properties be registered through Town Manager Julia Griffin by Sept. 1 of this year.

There is no registration fee, and owners who fail to fill out the proper town-provided paperwork could be fined $500, with exceptions for a good faith error.

The town will work with Dartmouth to launch a public relations campaign, notifying both landlords and tenants of the new ordinance.

Obliging property owners to register their rental units will allow the town to collect a rental housing inventory, Griffin said, the first step in ensuring all rental units are safe for tenants. Twenty percent of the college town’s “housing stock” consists of rental housing, occupied largely by Dartmouth College students.

“It gives us a way to rifle shot when we know there’s a problem so we can resolve it,” Selectboard Chairman Peter Christie said during last Monday’s meeting.

Griffin, the Selectboard, and planning and zoning officials have expressed concerns that many renters — students in particular — are unaware of their rights as tenants and are either unable or unwilling to advocate for safe living spaces for fear of eviction.

The Selectboard’s adoption of the ordinance enables Hanover to “enforce the minimum standards set forth in RSA 48-A:14 fairly and consistently,” which are outlined in the state’s housing standards and include working fire alarms, sufficient heating systems, clean water and other basic safety measures.

Any action by the town will be complaint-driven, meaning that upon receipt of a written complaint, the town will have the authority to “inspect the property to determine whether there are any health and safety violations at the property, but shall not be obligated to do so.”

Property owners and tenants will receive a notification by mail at least 24 hours prior to the inspection and the town may use an administrative search warrant if property entrance is denied.

All violations will be recorded and a written notice will be provided to both the tenants and the owner. After 30 days, the property will be re-inspected and if the violations have not been remedied, the town could refer the matter to town counsel for legal action.

Properties with violations will be re-inspected annually for three years “to ensure ongoing compliance with the applicable statutes and codes,” the ordinance says.

There is no fee for the initial inspection, but if a violation is discovered, each follow-up inspection will cost the property owner $200.

The ordinance will go into effect Aug. 1, in time for the beginning of Dartmouth’s fall term.

Long Time Coming

After nearly 30 minutes of discussion, where most of the dozen or so residents in attendance showed support and a couple offered objections, Christie called for a vote.

“Ayes have it, 4 to 1,” he said. “Ten years. Thank you.”

There was modest applause from several residents who have been pushing for the ordinance for years.

Planning Board Chairwoman Judith Esmay was one of them.

“It is 10 years to the week since the Selectboard considered a rental housing ordinance,” Esmay said during the hearing last Monday night, reading from the meeting minutes 10 years ago that cited Christie expressing concern that the ordinance in question — a 2003 draft offering more comprehensive measures — was a “sledgehammer response to a fly swatter problem.”

Esmay complimented the board for finally deciding upon an appropriate “fly swatter” to eliminate the problem, but said after the meeting that she believes the problem at hand deserves a sledgehammer thwack. She emphasized, though, that this is an important first step toward safer housing.

“It gives the town a handle that the students who live in town, or anyone who lives in town, do so safely,” Esmay said.

She said the push for a rental housing ordinance was strong 10 years ago, prompting Hanover residents to give the Selectboard permission during Town Meeting to create an ordinance. But the 2003 draft required annual inspections and registration certification, mandates the Selectboard felt were “sledgehammer” in nature.

They tabled the discussion and seriously picked it back during the last few years, Griffin said in an interview last week.

The Town’s primary motivation is the safety and well-being of its residents, and the current system — which doesn’t grant the town the means to quickly inspect problematic or dangerous units — isn’t working.

“Students don’t often know that heat has to be provided, a fire alarm has to be installed, or hot water has to be supplied,” Griffin said.

“They’re just not sure what they should be looking for to make sure they are safe.”

Every fall the town is inundated with often angry, sometimes flabbergasted, phone calls from Dartmouth parents who are moving their children into less-than-satisfactory housing, Griffin said.

Jan Stearns, a New Hampshire resident whose daughter, Jenna, just graduated from Dartmouth in June, told the Valley News that many students cram as many people as possible into houses to reduce the expensive cost of living in Hanover.

“The students want to cram as many students as they can into a rental property,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “Although landlords don’t say don’t do it, I think they still turn a blind eye to it. I’ve heard from multiple people in properties and students are sleeping in closets that don’t have windows. From a safety standard, that’s a little scary.”

Griffin said that the town currently gets complaints from neighbors, landlords and tenants about issues like overcrowding, but before the ordinance the town had no quick means to inspect. Students have been found living in basements beside furnaces with no escape route or in converted garages, she said, explaining that these unsafe conditions gave the Selectboard even more incentive to pass an ordinance.

“If anything were ever to happen to students, we couldn’t forgive ourselves,” Griffin said.

Although landlords often turn a blind eye to overcrowding, Griffin said students are at fault in many situations as well.

In Hanover, no more than three unrelated persons can live in a single housing unit; this means that in a rental home with five bedrooms, only three unrelated tenants can live there unless the landlord separates the home into two units with separate kitchens and entrances, Griffin said. The measure was created by the Planning and Zoning Board, Esmay said, to regulate overcrowding in rental housing. Instead, it made the make-up of residential homes the town’s business, something Esmay said she was uncomfortable with.

She also said the rule didn’t work.

Jolin Kish, a Dartmouth alumna and Hanover landlord, mentioned the ineffective nature of the rule during the public hearing.

“If we’re going to have an occupancy limit, we should have an occupancy limit,” she said, offering that the occupancy limit should be dictated by the size and safety of the unit, not a one-size-fits-all rule.

Griffin told Kish that the zoning ordinance is amended through a process involving the planning board, and after the meeting Esmay said the board will be able to reevaluate the zoning ordinance with “fresh eyes” now that the housing ordinance has passed.

Issues With Complaint-Based System

Although her daughter has graduated, Stearns said she is happy to hear that a rental housing ordinance will be put in place.

But she doubts the complaint-based system will work.

“I think there should be inspections. I think there should be inspections in every rental property,” she said in an interview a few months ago. “ … The expectation when you send your students to a dorm is that the building is safe and sound. And you expect that same safety and security when they move off campus and I’m not sure it’s there.”

She said students have little incentive to report unsafe living conditions to the town, especially if they are the ones creating the hazard.

That was the issue in the town of Durham, which has 14,600 residents and is home to the University of New Hampshire. Durham Town Administrator Todd Selig said they had been in need of an ordinance for years, but finally acted after a student-rented house fire in 2011 caught their attention.

There were no working smoke detectors in the home and the fire started in an illegal bedroom without windows, Durham Fire Chief Corey Landry said. Although nobody was home at the time, Landry said the fire easily could have resulted in serious injury or death.

“To wait until a tragedy occurred was just unacceptable,” Selig said.

Durham officials looked at a previous Hanover ordinance draft — the one from 2003 that was more comprehensive — for guidance, and crafted theirs closely after the state statute.

Griffin said fear of litigation helped shape the Hanover Selectboard’s decision to adopt a complaint-based system. But the town of Durham hasn’t faced any legal issues since their ordinance was adopted in January.

“Some landlords threatened litigation if it was adopted,” Selig said. “But to date, there has been no litigation.”

He said that the town began inspecting units in March — 15 per week — and have encountered just a few confrontations with homeowners. In the rental properties they’ve inspected so far, Landry said they’ve found violations in 90 percent of the units.

“It’s not that people are out here doing things wrong to do things wrong,” Landry said. “They just don’t know.”

The more proactive solution, Selig said, just made more sense to the town.

“The complaint-based system has not proven particularly effective for us,” he said. “And in this case particularly, the stakes are very high.”

Sarah Brubeck contributed to this report.

Katie Mettler can be reached at kmettler@vnews.com or 603-727-3234.