Town passes rental ordinance updating safety requirements, mandating inspections
According to Hanover town manager Alex Torpey, the ordinance enacts a “proactive” approach to upholding standards of living for students in off-campus rentals.
At a town hall on Oct. 17, the Hanover Selectboard unanimously passed an ordinance that updates safety requirements for rental units and will mandate inspections of rental properties. Within the next three years, every rental property in Hanover will undergo an inspection, Hanover town manager Alex Torpey said. The inspections will be relevant for students who live in off-campus housing units — many of which, he added, are substandard.
The ordinance updates a set of 2013 safety guidelines for rental properties, which only required that property managers register their rental units with the town and agree to basic safety measures. However, students, landlords and Torpey agreed that many rentals in town currently fail to meet the basic safety standards that future inspections will check for, including fire alarms and unblocked entrances. According to Torpey, the 2013 ordinance enforced rental unit safety by relying on complaints from the tenant about the state of their housing — which he called a “reactive” approach. In mandating inspections, Torpey said that the new ordinance upholds a “proactive” approach.
In a written statement, Hanover planning, building and codes director Robert Houseman wrote that all units will be inspected once every three years by the town and tenants cannot opt out of inspections. If a unit fails an inspection, a follow-up inspection will be made to ensure the property is compliant, he added.
Local landlord Jolin Salazar-Kish — who said that she manages rental properties in Hanover for approximately 500 tenants, more than 400 of whom are undergraduate or graduate students — said that the ordinance was important to increasing safety. She added that she has encountered several unsafe units under the previous standard.
“[I] took over management of 28 units in 2017, and the owner had signed the rental registration under the old registration, asserting that every single unit had smoke detection… And not one of those 28 units had those smoke detectors,” Salazar-Kish said.
At the town hall, the Hanover Selectboard indicated that the new ordinance was geared toward helping students. Laura Spector-Morgan, an attorney who helped write the ordinance with the town, said students are “particularly vulnerable” because they often do not know their rights as renters.
During the meeting, Torpey read quotes from a report on student housing compiled by Dartmouth Student Government president David Millman ’23 that emphasized basic safety violations, including a lack of smoke detectors.
Despite increasing safety expectations, Millman said that he thinks the ordinance will worsen the housing shortage in Hanover by shutting down apartments that don’t meet the new safety code. Problems with housing shortages have a long history at Dartmouth, which include overpopulation of Dartmouth’s capacity with the advent of coeducation.
According to Millman, who has advocated for changes to Hanover’s zoning laws, students who are unable to find suitable housing in Hanover due to the housing crisis may be forced to live in unsafe or overcrowded housing instead. Millman said that he wonders what repercussions there will be for rental units found to be over-occupied, such as if an inspection of a unit discovered more than three unrelated people living together — which is a violation of current zoning laws.
“There should be living standards for these apartments,” Millman said. “The one thing I’m worried about is the rental capacity. I’m worried about it reducing the housing stock.”
Torpey said that current zoning laws, which limit occupancy of a single unit to three unrelated individuals, are unrealistic. According to Torpey, the Hanover Planning Board is set to review the rule in the spring, and he encouraged students to show up to and vote in town meetings if they want it overturned. In May, voters at a town meeting approved a resolution that would establish the Main Wheelock zoning district, allowing for higher density residencies along West Wheelock street. In that same town meeting, however, voters rejected by a margin of over 700 votes an amendment that would have changed the definition of “family” for defining residential occupancy limits to increase residential capacity.
“All of us know there are many places with more than three people living in them already. Are we doing the same thing that the drinking age does, or the war on drugs did, which is to pretend that something isn’t happening, but actually it is happening?” Torpey said. “I think we need to be realistic.”
The housing shortage in Hanover — which Torpey described as “insane” — also takes a toll on the town’s economy. According to Torpey, businesses in Hanover are being hit hard by the national labor shortage because workers will not move to Hanover if they cannot find anywhere to live.
The new ordinance also includes “secondary” safety requirements, such as screens on all windows that open and connecting dryer vents to the outside, according to Salazar-Kish. Landlord Kari Asmus, however, said that some of the requirements, such as the replacement of old fixtures, are extraneous.
“[If a] handrail is 50 years old, so it’s not grabbable in the way that they’re supposed to be now — is that really critical to safety?” Asmus said. “There are violations [included in the ordinance] that don’t result in a great deal of safety improvements.”
More than 20% of Hanover’s housing stock consists of rental housing, according to the ordinance. For Asmus, this creates concerns of wasting the town’s resources. She explained that although there are “real, underlying safety issues” that deserve attention, she thinks that the ordinance is an ineffective use of town resources given that only some rental units truly require inspection.
Houseman said that the property owner is responsible for paying the inspection fee. In the town hall, the Selectboard estimated that rental property owners will bear a cost of $8.32 per month per unit as a result of the ordinance and a part of the “cost of doing business.” This increase will be factored into rental prices, Salazar-Kish said.
“The ‘cost of doing business’ directly affects what the rents are going to be,” Salazar-Kish said. “There’s no owner who’s going to all of a sudden make less money on their building because they have this new expense.”
Millman sees these costs as important to protecting the safety of student renters.
“It’s going to cost money to protect the safety of the residents,” he said. “[It costs] money to protect a very vulnerable population from harm.”