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The Dartmouth
April 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Verbum Ultimum: Hanover Rental Housing Rules Need Renovations

The Town of Hanover should promptly implement and expand on rental housing policies to ensure quicker improvement of abysmal rental housing conditions.

It’s no secret that off-campus rental housing for students in Hanover is a disaster. We are aware and grateful that Hanover passed a new ordinance last spring at the Town Meeting creating a new position in Town government — a Rental Housing Inspector & Health Officer — dedicated to performing inspections of rental properties. The ordinance requires inspections of rental housing every three years, and problem properties that are repeatedly found to violate applicable habitability requirements are potentially subjected to an annual instead of triannual inspection. The ordinance also provides for fines for violations and the opportunity for properties to be closed to habitation should they be deemed unsafe. 

The Town’s ordinance, while a step in the right direction, is not sufficient to address such an entrenched issue. Unfortunately, we believe it isn’t strong enough to compel real compliance and doesn’t address the potential for landlord retaliation against tenants who complain about violations. We know that many in town don’t understand the full extent of rental housing problems, and we would like to shed light on how dire the situation is for student renters — and why stronger regulations are necessary.

One member of this Editorial Board lived in a property owned by a Hanover landlord for one term. When they first moved into the home, it was evidently dirty and had not been cleaned after the last tenants had moved out. Then, before this member moved out of their property, they required that she and her roommates leave their unit in a clean condition, which they had done by thoroughly cleaning the unit themselves every two weeks. The landlord still required that the Board member and her roommates hire a cleaning service, which they paid for out-of-pocket. 

Even though the unit was cleaned by both the tenants and professional cleaners, the landlord claimed the unit had still not been cleaned adequately and kept hundreds of dollars of their security deposit with no explanation. Other members of the Board have also heard similar stories from this landlord’s tenants, such as when they refused to return security deposits because she claimed the occupants had damaged the property even though the damage had been present before the affected tenants moved in.

The same member of this Editorial Board currently lives in an off-campus property owned by a different landlord. When she moved into this home, it was filthy, there was a horrible stench of mothballs throughout the house and the storage closet was full of junk left by past tenants. The front porch was also littered with random, unclaimed junk. Additionally, a large clump of foam filling jutted out from the bottom corner of a kitchen cabinet into the kitchen space. This member called the landlord’s assistant to assess the property, and she claimed that the scent was “detergent” but that two maintenance workers had come in to install the foam recently — between when the last tenants moved out and this member moved in — so they might know about the smell. After the member lived in the house with the smell for about a week, the two maintenance workers returned and removed the extra foam, which contained the mothballs inside of it. The member has been told by another one of this landlord’s tenants that these two are not actually maintenance workers, but rather two older men who live with the landlord in Massachusetts and perform pro bono work on her properties in exchange.

It is unclear the last time the landlord inspected this property, which is in such a dire state that it would be easier to tear it down than fix it. It thus makes sense why the workers have done such a terrible job maintaining the property. They have no incentive to invest real effort in their work because they aren’t being paid; furthermore, there is no one to hold them accountable for their work aside from the tenants themselves.

Given the issues like these, the ordinance clearly represents an improvement, and Town officials have mentioned that they were written with student complaints in mind. Nonetheless, we hope the Town will both promptly carry out and then expand on the ordinance to ensure quicker improvement in what just about everyone in town knows are abysmal rental housing conditions.

To start, the current state of the new policy and its enforcement is unclear. Town officials noted in reporting this past fall that they were having issues with their registration software, putting them weeks behind schedule. Additionally, the Town’s website lists that the new housing inspector position, which was posted back in June, is still apparently unfilled and open to applications. Health and safety issues in town deserve more urgency than they appear to be treated with. If Town officials need additional support in implementing the new policy, we call on the Selectboard to act quickly and ensure they get it.

We also hope the Town will consider further improvements to the ordinance and related regulations. First, we hope the Town would consider more serious punishments for property owners who do not take their obligations seriously, such as banning them from renting in Hanover, thereby encouraging them to sell their properties to a hopefully more responsible owner. Many other localities across the country use such policies when landlords refuse to comply with applicable health and safety regulations, and Hanover should, too.

Second, we call on the Town to do more to publicize tenant rights. Students generally don’t know what they are owed under the law, nor do they understand their avenues of recourse should they not receive their due. The current ordinance only requires that property owners display within the unit “The telephone number to call to register complaints regarding the physical condition of the dwelling unit.” While important, this is not enough. We encourage the Town to consider hosting regular informational events on tenant rights, which could be potentially run in partnership with the College and Dartmouth Student Government.

We also hope the Town will develop and advertise an anonymous reporting system so that tenants can feel comfortable reporting issues while minimizing the risk of retribution by the property owner. The Town should then credibly back this up by imposing a ban on and penalties for landlord retribution against tenants who stand up for their rights and complain about unsafe or otherwise unsatisfactory conditions in their units. Tenants, with their frequent lack of familiarity with the legal system and resources to pursue grievances, are currently the underdogs. They face an uphill struggle just to get the bare minimum. A level playing field must be created to ensure fairness for all parties.

We understand worries that stricter enforcement of rental property regulations may reduce the supply of housing and worsen an already abysmal crisis of housing availability and supply. However, we argue that this is not a trade we should have to make. Arguments like this distract from the fact that it’s possible to have both sufficient and affordable housing and housing that is safe for tenants. We hope the Town will build on its past actions and stand firmly on the side of the hundreds, if not thousands, of town residents and voters who happen to rent rather than own their homes.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.