Hanover OKs ordinance for rental property inspections

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/18/2022 10:46:13 PM
Modified: 10/19/2022 12:38:52 PM

HANOVER — The Selectboard unanimously approved a new ordinance on Monday to require regular inspections of all rental properties, including bedrooms rented in owner-occupied residences, in an effort to address concerns about the safety and livability of housing options in town.

According to officials, the new ordinance provides the tools and authority for the town to enforce its existing health and safety requirements for rental properties, which the town adopted in an ordinance in 2013. That ordinance, while defining the standards for how rental housing should be designed and maintained, did not give the town authority to inspect properties that were the subject of complaints.

“This is basically giving more teeth to the existing law,” said board Secretary Joanna Whitcomb.

The new ordinance requires all rental units in Hanover to be inspected every three years in order to receive or renew a town-issued permit allowing a rental unit to be occupied. Properties may also be inspected if a complaint about the property’s condition is filed with the town.

The inspection will assess the property’s compliance with a series of state and local safety regulations, including fire codes. Properties are expected to have adequate ventilation, lighting and sanitary facilities, be free of conditions that increase the risk of fire or injury and meet standards pertaining to sanitation, amount of living space per resident and other health and safety criteria.

Town Manager Alex Torpey, a former volunteer emergency medical technician and onetime mayor of South Orange, N.J., the home of Seton Hall University, spoke about a “tragic” dormitory fire there 20 years ago that killed three students and injured 58 others. That fire, Torpey said, strengthened the community’s attention to fire prevention, such as expanded sprinkler systems and education programs, to teach students ways to prevent fires and how to respond in a fire event.

With the help of Dartmouth College students, town officials surveyed a number of units where students are currently living. According to excerpts from student responses, some properties have no fire alarms or smoke detectors, are poorly ventilated or are “dirty.”

“I hear things like this, and it’s pretty terrifying that these are rental units that people are living in tonight in Hanover,” Torpey said.

Town Zoning Administrator Robert Houseman said that some properties have fire code violations such as windows that are “painted shut or secured shut.”

Under the ordinance, the property owners must cover the cost of the three-year inspection for their property’s rental certification, including a $50 application fee and a $250 inspection fee. Property owners must also pay a $75 fee for reinspections.

An individual who requests a property be inspected as part of a complaint must pay the inspection fee.

Selectboard Chairman Peter Christie said the board anticipates that landlords likely would pass those expenses to tenants, though the town would prefer landlords absorb the fees.

“While there is a public good to having safe rental units, we believe the cost for the inspections should be borne to those receiving the income, as a cost of doing business,” Christie said.

Christie noted that the town taxpayers will have to incur the costs to hire new employees for the inspection, which will include an inspector and a part-time administrator.

Some residents raised questions or concerns about unintended adverse outcomes of the new ordinance, including some who objected outright.

Resident Phillip Glouchevitch, whose family home includes an attached apartment that he rents for additional income, called the ordinance “a bureaucratic nightmare that could overstretch town resources” and possibly “stoke resentments” from residents, particularly those who may rent parts of their homes for supplemental income.

The new ordinance, Glouchevitch noted, does not differentiate between the type of rental housing in terms of rules and standards, whether the rental is a multi-family dwelling, a house shared by a group of students or an extra bedroom being rented in an owner-occupied house.

Glouchevitch said the ordinance should focus more on properties that are not occupied by the owner, such as rentals to Dartmouth students, which he feels tend to be the primary source of concern.

Glouchevitch also questioned whether the workload to inspect properties, or the absence of a town inspector, could delay the ability of property owners to rent their units.

“No one wants to argue against safety, myself included,” Glouchevitch said. “But I think this is going to cause a lot of headaches for property owners and the town.”

Dartmouth College Student President David Millman, who assisted the town in conducting surveys of students who rent properties, said he supports the ordinance. But he also raised questions about potential consequences.

Many students, Millman speculated, may be unwilling to file complaints about their living conditions and might even help hide potential violations, such as overcrowding, due to their fear of losing their place to live. Millman suggested the addition of a provision that would require a landlord to provide alternative housing to tenants should the town force their residence to be vacated.

“If students don’t know where they will live if they have to vacate, they may be unwilling to contact the (town), because they would rather have unsafe housing than no housing,” Millman said.

Town officials estimate there are about 1,200 rental units in Hanover. Dartmouth College owns 330 rental units off campus.

Selectboard members said they anticipate making revisions to refine the ordinance over time.

Board members said it will take at least six weeks before the inspection program is ready for implementation. Having approved the ordinance, town officials need to hire an inspector and establish an inspection schedule for properties.

Patrick Adrian may be reached at 603-727-3216 or at padrian@vnews.com.

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